On Jan. 30, a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island—also part of the Paracels—in a freedom-of-navigation exercise. A few days later, China’s foreign-ministry spokesman called that action “dangerous and irresponsible” and said the US was “seriously harming relevant regional peace and stability.” A subsequent column in the state-controlled Xinhua newswire said, “Facts have proved that China, instead of doing any harm to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, has provided public services to ensure the safety of all vessels sailing in the waters.”

After China added runways and other facilities to its manmade islands in the sea’s similarly contested Spratly archipelago, it also claimed they were merely for civilian use, and argued that its intent with the new infrastructure was to provide services to passing ships.

It is unclear what services surface-to-air missiles might provide to passing ships or civilians.

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