DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now to a story in Asia that we're following closely this morning - China has deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea. That has been confirmed for the first time by the Pentagon and also Taiwan's military. The U.S. Admiral in charge of the Pacific is calling this move a, quote, "clear indication of militarization." Let's turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's following this news from Shanghai. Good morning, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So I don't think I'm exactly familiar with where we're talking about here. What is this island, and what's happening there?
LANGFITT: Well, this is in a place that's called the Paracel chain. And it's right sort of - it's in the middle of the South China Sea. It's about 200 - more than 200 miles from China's nearest province. And it's called Woody Island. And what they've done - the Pentagon is saying the Chinese have put what are called HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles. They've got a range of more than 100 miles. And this has just been discovered recently. And so it's kind of dominating the news here today in East Asia.
GREENE: And this island is disputed, we mentioned. That means China claims that it belongs to them, but other countries also claim same thing.
LANGFITT: Absolutely. And, of course, this is the problem across the South China Sea. China's controlled it for a long time. I want to remind people this is not one of those artificial islands that they basically built from sand. China's had it for many years. They've got a population of about 1,400 Chinese there. But Vietnam and Taiwan, they also consider it to be their territory as well.
GREENE: OK, so those are countries that are friendly with the United States. This is China now, as we understand it, putting surface-to-air missiles that could take down aircraft. This sounds pretty significant.
LANGFITT: I think it is. I've been talking to a lot of analysts today, and this is the first time most of them can remember China actually putting missiles on disputed islands. It might have happened a long time ago, but certainly recently, as we've seen in the last few years, there's been a lot of tension in the region. And this is the first time that people can really remember this happening. And people generally, I think, saw it as China upping the stakes in the area and kind of making the next tactical move. The U.S. Admiral Harry Harris - he's head of U.S. Pacific Command - he was in Tokyo today. He did a briefing, and he said that this represents a militarization of the South China Sea. And I think it's important for people back in the States to remember that these are really crucial sea lanes. A lot happens out here. You've got more than $5 trillion in trade. Twenty percent of that is U.S. trade. All the oil goes to Japan through the South China Sea. And we also have these countries here - China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan - all kind of arguing over these islands.
GREENE: Well, you mentioned what we hear - or what you're hearing from a U.S. admiral. I mean, the United States has been active, the military, in this region, right? I mean, running aircraft, sort of keeping an eye on this...
LANGFITT: Very much so. And people think that this is sort of a countermove by the Chinese. As we've seen in the last few months, the Americans have been flying surveillance planes over these islands and getting yelled at by air traffic control - the artificial islands that we've been talking about earlier. They've also sent destroyers very close to the islands, and then the Chinese are saying, hey, as far as we're concerned, this is sovereign territory. And so a lot of people watching this today say, well, this is China's next move. It's kind of ratcheting up a bit and putting missile batteries on these islands.
GREENE: Well, Frank, just listening to you there, I mean, are we inching closer to a potential military conflict between the United States and China?
LANGFITT: Most analysts here don't think so. They think that even as both countries make moves and countermoves, they're also very, very aware of the risks. Everybody here's watching it very closely. And they hope that both countries can kind of work out an understanding that they're going to be very, very careful, even as they try to kind of enforce their interests in this huge, very important, body of water.
GREENE: And real briefly, Frank, anything yet from the Chinese government talking about this?
LANGFITT: Yeah, I mean, what they said is - first of all, they didn't confirm or deny. But the foreign ministry spokesman today said, well, you know, if we were doing this, hey, you know, it's perfectly reasonable. This is just for defensive reasons. And so they're basically arguing - as they have throughout these disputes - this is our sovereign territory, and you have to get used to that.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting for us in Shanghai this morning. Frank, thanks a lot.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.