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China has missiles on disputed South China Sea island, officials say

HONG KONG — China has apparently deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea, escalating regional tensions with China’s neighbors and the United States.

According to a U.S. official who insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, the Pentagon has evidence that there are HQ-9 missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which is claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as well as by China. The official did not give details about how many missiles there were, how long they had been there or whether they were operational.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday, also saying that anti-aircraft missiles were present on the island.

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Tensions over the sea have been inflamed by China’s extensive effort to build artificial islands there, intending to bolster its claim to sovereignty over most of the sea and the many reefs and islets in it. China’s claims in the sea overlap those made by other nations including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The United States does not recognize China’s claims, and in recent months, it has sailed warships and flown military aircraft near the Chinese outposts to assert its right to freedom of navigation.

Without referring specifically to the missiles, President Barack Obama addressed the issue Tuesday at a meeting in California with leaders of 10 Southeast Asian countries. Obama said the group agreed on a statement reaffirming the importance of freedom of navigation in the sea.

“We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to reduce tension, including a halt to further land reclamation,” Obama said. “Freedom of navigation must be upheld.”

Sending a signal to China, Obama said U.S. ships and planes would continue to sail and fly “wherever international law allows.”

The Chinese Ministry of Defense did not confirm or deny the missile deployment, but noted that the Chinese Navy and Air Force had had forces on the Paracel Islands “for many years.”

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“The Paracel Islands have always been a part of China’s territory,” the ministry said in a statement. “China has the legitimate and legal rights to deploy defense facilities within its territory, in order to defend the sovereignty and security of the country.”

The Chinese-made missiles have a range of about 125 miles and are capable of destroying aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, according to Missile Threat, a website run by the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Virginia.