China will soon conclude land reclamation at some sites in the South China Sea, a move that may cool tensions over the island building that has fueled concerns about freedom of navigation in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“The land reclamation project of China’s construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands will be completed in the upcoming days,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website, using the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands.
China has been attempting to ratchet down tensions over the program, which has seen 1,500 acres of a total of 2,000 acres of land reclaimed since December, upsetting smaller neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines that also have claims in the sea. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last month called on all those involved in the dispute to stop reclaiming land.
The foreign ministry statement comes as diplomats prepare for the U.S.-China strategic economic dialogue set for June 23-24 in Washington and the planned visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington in September.
General Fan Changlong -- second only to Xi on the Central Military Commission -- last week told Carter in Washington that disagreements over the island-building shouldn’t overshadow broader ties between the two countries. China had days earlier challenged U.S. surveillance flights in the area.
The reclamation activity would end only on “some” of the islands, Lu said, without giving further details. China has been building on seven features in the waters, and is constructing an airstrip capable of handling its biggest military aircraft.
Lu repeated China’s line that its reclamation activity is legal because the islands and reefs fall within China’s sovereignty. China claims 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map. Five other countries have rival claims.
“After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements,” Lu said. The islands will be used for military defense as well as for civilian purposes such as marine scientific research and meteorological observation, he said.
Alexander Sullivan, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said last week that China was likely to try to “tamp” down tensions with the U.S. in the lead up to Xi’s Washington visit.
For more, read this QuickTake: Territorial Disputes