China yesterday sketched out detailed plans for the islands it is creating in the disputed South China Sea, saying they would be used for military defense as well as to provide civilian services that would benefit other countries.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) told a news briefing that the reclamation and building work in the Spratly archipelago (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) of the South China Sea was needed partly because of the risk of typhoons in an area with a lot of shipping that is far from land.
“We are building shelters, aids for navigation, search and rescue as well as marine meteorological forecasting services, fishery services and other administrative services so as to provide the necessary services to China, neighboring countries and individual vessels sailing the South China Sea,” Hua said.
She said the islands and reefs would also meet the demands for China’s military defense, although she did not elaborate.
It is rare for China to give such detail about its plans for the artificial islands. The rapid reclamation taking place on seven reefs has alarmed other claimants and drawn US criticism, including from US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who is visiting Japan and South Korea this week.
“The relevant construction is a matter that is entirely within the scope of China’s sovereignty. It is fair, reasonable, lawful; it does not affect and is not targeted against any country. It is beyond reproach,” Hua added.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
All but Brunei have fortified bases in the Spratlys, which lie roughly 1,300km from the Chinese mainland, but much closer to the Southeast Asian claimants.
While China’s new islands will not overturn US military superiority in the region, workers are building ports and fuel storage depots, as well as possibly two airstrips, that experts have said would allow Beijing to project its power deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
Hua’s comments came hours after a Washington-based think tank published new satellite images that show China is quickly reclaiming land around Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) in the Spratlys within an area the Philippines regards as its exclusive economic zone.
The work on Mischief Reef is China’s most recent reclamation.
A March 16 image published by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows what it said were a chain of small artificial land formations, as well as new structures, fortified seawalls and construction equipment along Mischief Reef.
Several dredgers are also present while the entrance to the reef had been expanded, the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said on its Web site.
An image from Feb. 1 showed a Chinese amphibious transport naval vessel several hundred meters from the reef’s entrance. CSIS said such a ship was capable of holding up to 800 troops and as many as 20 amphibious armored vehicles.
Surveillance photos taken of Mischief Reef in October last year and seen by Reuters showed no reclamation work.
Asked about Mischief Reef in light of the images, Carter said he did not want to speculate on China’s future plans, but added that the militarization of territorial disputes in the South China Sea could lead to “dangerous incidents.”
“It’s not just an American concern, but a concern of almost every country in the entire region,” Carter told reporters before leaving Japan for South Korea.
Hua said that “recent erroneous and negative comments made by individual countries” missed the point.
“China adheres to the path of peaceful development and carries out a defensive national defence policy. Maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea is in keeping with the development and security of China,” she said.
The Philippines first said in February that Chinese dredgers had started work at Mischief Reef, 216km west of the Philippine island of Palawan.
China occupied Mischief Reef in 1995. The October photos showed two structures, including a three-story building sitting on an atoll.
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