China has sent fighter jets to a disputed island in the South China Sea, where it deployed surface-to-air missiles earlier this month, U.S. government sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
One U.S. official, however, noted that China regularly sent jets to Woody Island, part of the Paracel archipelago controlled by Beijing. The deployment was first reported by Fox News.
This follows several "militarization" actions by China in the region, which it claims control of, in competition with several other Asian nations including Vietnam and the Philippines. The Philippines last October won the right to have its territorial claims over the disputed area heard by an arbitration court in the Hague, infuriating China.
Control of the region is valuable because more than $5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea each year, and China has been accused of ramping up tensions over control in recent years by building artificial islands on reefs, on which it has added airstrips and other military-style installations.
The U.S. regularly exercises its right to "freedom of navigation" by sending naval vessels through the South China Sea, including within 12 nautical miles of islands claimed by China. Beijing has responded by calling these actions "provocations" that risked a military response.
A U.S. think tank reported on Monday that China may be installing a high-frequency radar system on the Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands that could significantly boost its ability to control the strategic sea.
And last Thursday, the U.S. accused China of inflaming the issue by its apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island.
The apparent move to also send fighter jets to the islands came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington.
China's Foreign Ministry set a defiant tone said ahead of Wang's visit, saying that Beijing's military deployments in the South China Sea were no different from U.S. deployments on Hawaii.
At a joint news conference with Kerry following their meeting, Wang said there had been no problems with freedom of navigation and China and countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - several of which have competing claims with China - "have the capability to maintain stability in the South China Sea."
He said militarization was not the responsibility of one party alone and added in apparent reference to U.S. patrols: "We don't hope to see any more close-up military reconnaissance, or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea."
Kerry said steps by China, Vietnam and others that had created an "escalatory cycle."
"What we are trying to do it break that cycle," he said. "Regrettably there are missiles and fighter aircraft and guns and other things that have been placed into the South China Sea and this if of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade," he added.