By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has "challenged" reports that it deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles to a disputed island in the South China Sea, Australia's foreign minister said on Thursday, as Beijing told Canberra to stop interfering.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry said the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island in the Paracels chain, which has been under Chinese control for decades, but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
A U.S. defense official confirmed the "apparent deployment" of the missiles, first reported by Fox News.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the first senior Western official to visit China since the missile reports, said she had raised the issue of the South China Sea's militarization in her talks.
"President Xi (Jinping) said in Washington last year that China did not intend to militarize the islands and we certainly hold China to that and that's been reiterated to me," she told reporters, after meeting China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
"In the case of the surface-to-air missile claim, that's disputed by China. We raised the matter and we've had a discussion about it," Bishop added.
Pressed on whether China was denying the presence of missiles, she said, "No, they did not deny, but nor did they admit that there were. It was challenged. The reports were challenged.
"The point about the surface-to-air missiles is in dispute, so until such time as we have a clear picture of it, of course it's a matter of concern."
Yang, in a statement released by the Foreign Ministry after Bishop spoke to reporters, said he had explained to her that the islands in the South China Sea had been China's since ancient times.
"The limited defensive facilities that China has deployed on its own territory have nothing do with militarization," Yang told Bishop, according to the statement.
Australia is not a party to the dispute, should stick to its promises not to take sides and "not participate in or take any actions to harm regional peace and stability or Sino-Australia ties", he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
The Chinese government has offered few specific details in response to the missiles claim, while accusing Western media of "hyping up" the story and saying China has a legitimate right to military facilities on territory it views as its own.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Thursday would also neither confirm nor deny if the missiles were on Woody Island, repeating that China has had defense facilities on the islands for decades.
Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, the Philippine military commander responsible for the South China Sea, said any such missile deployment would be a concern for the international community.
"It has an impact," he told reporters. "There is no reason to deploy them if you are not going use them ... If they have that there, they have the intention to use it.
"What if they use them against a civilian aircraft who ignores their challenge? The stability in the region is being threatened because of the deployment of such arms."
China has been angered by air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near artificial islands China has built in the Spratly islands chain farther south in the South China Sea, including some by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.
Last month, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, a move China condemned as provocative.
China needs to strengthen its "self-defense" in the South China Sea in the face of "more frequent provocations from the U.S. military," the influential state-run tabloid, the Global Times, wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
"Jet fighters from the United States, an outside country, may feel uneasy when making provocative flights in the region. To us, that's a proper result," it said of the reported missile deployment.
The United States claims no territory in the South China Sea but has expressed serious concerns about how China's increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims there could affect the vital global trade routes that pass though it.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Mike Collett-White)