China Says South China Sea Construction Is Protecting Distant Reefs

  • Facilities don't mean South China Sea reefs are militarized
  • China calls on other countries to demilitarize islands

China refuted claims it is militarizing the disputed South China Sea, saying it needs to build facilities on artificial islands and reefs to protect them.

“As the islands and reefs are far from China’s mainland it is necessary to maintain and build necessary military facilities,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur after an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. “This is necessitated by China’s national defense purpose and to protect those islands and reefs.”

The Subi Reef in the South China Sea, part of the Spratly Islands
The Subi Reef in the South China Sea, part of the Spratly Islands
Source: Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.

“One should never link such military facilities with efforts to militarize the islands and reefs and militarize the South China Sea,” Liu said.

China has engaged in a reclamation program that’s dumped millions of tons of sand and coral onto islands and reefs where it claims sovereignty. Its actions have been focused on the Spratly islands within waters that carry about 30 percent of global trade. China is building as many as three airstrips there, prompting concern in the U.S. that its actions will provide it with military bases and risk hindering the free movement of shipping.

Liu’s comments reflect an effort by China to cast its South China Sea activities in a non-confrontational light. Officials have also said that facilities on the islands such as lighthouses will help ships from other countries navigate the waters and assist in search and rescue operations.

The South China Sea was a topic at both Asean in Malaysia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Manila that preceded it, as the U.S. seeks to preserve its influence in Asia and China to gain it. China is looking to translate its economic clout into greater military sway, with the South China Sea becoming the focal point of the broader geopolitical shifts in the region.

“These comments will be seen as another volley in what’s become an extended tennis match of claim and counter claim in the region,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. “China is pushing its hold not just because it wants the islands but because it wants to demonstrate it can get them against America’s opposition.”

‘Crucial Pieces’

“These islands have become crucial pieces in the game over who’s the primary power in Asia,” White said, adding distance from a country’s mainland is not necessarily a factor in ascertaining sovereignty.

Tensions between the U.S. and China rose last month after the U.S. conducted a freedom of navigation operation by sailing the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of an island China has built on a previously semi-submerged reef. China’s claim to more than 80 percent of the waters clashes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Speaking at APEC, Obama called for bold steps to reduce tensions in the area and urged countries to use international forums to settle their disputes. "We’re not claimants ourselves but we fully support a process in which through international laws and international norms these issues are resolved,” Obama said.

Code of Conduct

Liu said that freedom of navigation and overflight wasn’t a problem in the South China Sea, and called on countries from outside the region not to destabilize the situation.

Speaking at a closing briefing for the Asean meeting, host and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged progress on a code of conduct for the waters -- something that has been under discussion for more than a year without tangible progress. He also said some nations had “great concern" about China’s reclamation but added countries meeting in Malaysia -- including China -- agreed to preserve the freedom of navigation in the area.

A sideline meeting of Asean foreign ministers expressed concern about “ongoing developments" in the South China Sea without mentioning China by name, and said all parties should show restraint.

Liu said that there are more than 100 islands, reefs, atolls and shoals in the Nansha islands, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys, and nearly 50 only emerge at low tide. Of the features, 42 have been illegally occupied by three of China’s neighbors. One had occupied 29 features, another eight, and the third neighbor occupied five, he said without naming the countries.

‘Consistent Position’

Taiwan, which he described as a Chinese “province,” controls the largest island -- Taiping, also known as Itu Aba -- and China has seven, Liu said.

“It is a consistent position of the Chinese government to firmly oppose the militarization of the South China Sea,” Liu said. “So we call on all countries not to link their construction on islands and reefs with militarization,” he said, urging countries that have “illegally” occupied China’s islands to demilitarize those facilities.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday his country supported the U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but added Japan’s self-defense forces wouldn’t participate in the patrols.

At a weekend meeting in Sydney with her Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated Australia doesn’t take sides on the sea disputes but urges “all claimants to settle any disputes pursuant to international law and in accordance with a rules-based international order.”

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