WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday slammed China for its increased "militarisation" in the strategically important South China Sea, after Taiwan said Beijing deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island there.
"There is every evidence, every day, that there has been an increase of militarisation of one kind or another. It's of a serious concern," Kerry told reporters.
Fox News first reported missile launchers and a radar system had arrived on Woody Island, part of the Paracels chain, in the past week. Taiwan's defence ministry later confirmed the facility's existence.
Beijing has controlled all of the Paracels, which are also claimed by Hanoi and Taipei, since seizing several from South Vietnam in a brief, bloody battle towards the end of the Vietnam War.
But tensions in the sea - through which one-third of the world's oil passes - have mounted in recent months since China transformed contested reefs in the Spratly islands further south into artificial islands capable of supporting military facilities.
Washington says the move threatens free passage in a strategically vital area and has sent warships to sail close to the disputed islands to assert freedom of navigation, raising fears of escalation.
"We have said repeatedly with respect to China that the standard that should be applied to all countries with respect to the South China Sea is no militarisation," Kerry said.
The Secretary of State recalled that when Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Washington late last year, "he stood in the Rose Garden with President (Barack) Obama and said China will not militarise in the South China Sea."
"We had these conversations with the Chinese and I'm confident that over the next days, we will have further very serious conversations on this," Kerry said.
He said he hoped that Beijing would work to resolve the maritime disputes "not through unilateral action, not through force, not through militarisation but through diplomacy and by working with other countries and claimants."
The US Defence Department on Wednesday said commercial imagery indicated that China had deployed a surface-to-air missile system on a disputed outpost in the South China Sea, and said the action was increasing tensions in the region.
The Pentagon urged all countries that have staked claims to disputed areas in the region to address their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, and to commit to peacefully manage or resolve their disputes.
“We call on South China Sea claimants to publicly commit to a reciprocal halt to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and new militarization of disputed features,” said Navy Commander Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
On Tuesday, Obama called for "tangible steps" to lower tensions in the South China Sea.
Beijing, meanwhile, has insisted it has the right to build "self-defence" systems in the region.