by Thu Van
Just a day after 10 Southeast Asian leaders gathered for a summit with US President Barack Obama in California, the Pentagon found China had deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Phu Lam Island of Viet Nam's Hoang Sa Archipelago.
Anyone who is concerned about the situation in the East Sea will remember that Chinese President Xi Jinping late last year told US President Barack Obama at the joint press conference on 25 September 2015 during his visit to the United States that China "does not intend to pursue militarization".
Of course, based on what China did over the two years before Xi made that statement – turning seven reefs in Truong Sa archipelago into large-scale artificial islands and building three airstrips on Chu Thap, Xubi (Subi) and Vanh Khan (Mischief) reefs – people would not be naive enough to believe what he had said.
But China's actions moved beyond the world's expectations when it responded to international criticism for its wrongful act.
When US Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said the presence of missiles provided increasing evidence of militarisation by China, and that the missiles had provided a "destabilising effect" across the region, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Washington should not use the issue of military facilities on the islands as a "pretext to make a fuss".
To make the statement even stronger, China accused the US of militarising the region, saying patrols by US Navy vessels and military aircraft had escalated tensions and raised concerns about stability in the area.
For its part, Viet Nam has protested the act, saying it's deeply concerned about China's activities, which seriously violate Viet Nam's sovereignty of the archipelago and threaten peace and stability in the region and East Sea.
The issue hasn't cooled down yet. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Tuesday suggested may be building a series of radar facilities on artificial islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea (East Sea), which would help it to establish "effective control" over sea and air in one of the world's busiest waterways.
China said the country's artificial islands in the East Sea were being used for civilian purposes, pointing out that Beijing had built lighthouses and weather observation facilities there, but this may not be the truth. The radar could be used to track shipping and aircraft, as well as measuring ocean currents, experts said.
"We can recognise easily that the facilities China built were for military purposes," said Tran Cong Truc, former head of Viet Nam's Border Affairs Committee.
All countries concerned about the East Sea have been asked to remain calm, and all acts that may affect regional stability are not welcome. Negotiations on a code of conduct between China and ASEAN are ongoing. But these actions are a sign that China does not take such diplomacy and international laws seriously.
Beijing is sending a clear signal that it is seeking "hegemony" in East Asia, as Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said earlier this week.
When China started construction on the artificial islands, it denied it had aggressive intentions. It said its construction in the disputed East Sea was to install defensive measures and civilian facilities on islands it has sovereignty over, and that it would benefit the international community.
But Tran Cong Truc said China's latest action is "a new military escalation" that went against what the country said.
The former official said Beijing "challenges not only other claimants like Viet Nam but other outsiders like the United States, which utilised its freedom of navigation near China's artificial islands in the East Sea."
Truc said the move was a serious and dangerous one, which would be followed by more steps by China to have total occupation of the East Sea.
He also said the deployment might spark an arms race in Asia, and suspected that the Chinese government is preparing to declare and air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East Sea. Truc said a large-scale conflict is quite possible if no effective solution is deployed to "stop China".
"Action by the concerned countries and international parties is essential before things can get really bad," he said.
Back to the present and the missiles: We can't yet tell if it is possible to suspect China would intentionally fire on a civilian aircraft. However, we can't tell if a misunderstanding could cause an accidental downing of an airplane flying between Taipei and Singapore or HCM City, either.
Of course we don't want that to happen. And neither do any peace-loving countries in the world. Without a strong response, that could totally be possible. — VNS