BEIJING (Reuters/AFP) - China has "challenged" reports that it deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles to a disputed island in the South China Sea, but any militarisation would be a concern, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Thursday (Feb 18).
Taiwan's Defence Ministry said the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island in the Paracels chain, which has been under Chinese control for decades, but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. A US defence official also confirmed the "apparent deployment" of the missiles, first reported by Fox News.
Ms Bishop, the first senior Western official to visit China since the missile reports, said she had raised the issue of the South China Sea's militarisation in her talks.
"President Xi said in Washington last year that China did not intend to militarise the islands and we certainly hold China to that and that's been reiterated to me," she told reporters, after meeting China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
"In the case of the surface-to-air missile claim, that's disputed by China. We raised the matter and we've had a discussion about it," Ms Bishop added.
Pressed on whether China was denying the presence of missiles, she said: "No, they did not deny, but nor did they admit that there were. It was challenged. The reports were challenged.
"The point about the surface-to-air missiles is in dispute, so until such time as we have a clear picture of it, of course it's a matter of concern."
However, China's Ministry of Defence confirmed that "China has deployed weapons on the island for a long time", reported the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Communist party.
It did not, however, specify what type of weapons were on the island.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
The Chinese government has offered few specific details in response to the missiles claim, while accusing Western media of "hyping up" the story and saying China has a legitimate right to military facilities on territory it views as its own.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Thursday would also neither confirm nor deny if the missiles were on Woody Island, repeating that China has had defence facilities on the islands for decades.
China has been angered by air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near artificial islands China has built in the Spratly islands chain farther south in the South China Sea, including some by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.
Last month, a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, a move China condemned as provocative.
China needs to strengthen its "self-defence" in the South China Sea in the face of "more frequent provocations from the US military," the influential state-run tabloid, the Global Times, wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
"Jet fighters from the United States, an outside country, may feel uneasy when making provocative flights in the region. To us, that's a proper result," it said of the reported missile deployment.
The United States claims no territory in the South China Sea but has expressed serious concerns about how China's increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims there could affect the vital global trade routes that pass though it.