China to complete island building in disputed waters

Beijing's announcement likely to anger other regional countries with claims on territory in South China Sea

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

China will conclude some of its land reclamation works in the South China Sea soon, the country's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

"Based on our understanding from the relevant authorities, in accordance with the set work plan, the land reclamation project for China's construction on some islands and reefs on the Nansha islands will be completed soon," a statement by the ministry said, using the Chinese name for the Spratly islands, according to Reuters.

Beijing will then use the built facilities to fulfil its "relevant functions," it said.

The statement did not give an exact location or any timeframe for the  island building that will be completed. China is undertaking land reclamation works in seven reefs in the disputed waters, which have some of the world's busiest shipping ways.

The potentially energy-rich Spratly islands are one of the main flashpoints in the South China Sea, with claims on the territory also coming from Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. The dispute over the islands is being closely watched by the United States after China placed a giant oil rig in nearby waters also claimed by Vietnam.

China increased its efforts to redefine its territorial waters last year when Beijing began building seven artificial islands.

The Pentagon believes that China has added some 2,000 acres (800 hectares) to five outposts in the Spratlys, including 1,500 acres since the start of this year.

US officials claim that Chinese military complexes are now under construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly islands, including a 3,000 metre-long runway, and that airborne early warning radars will be operational by the year end.

The new move signals that Beijing is close to setting up new outposts in the strategic waters, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Tensions have also increased as the US has begun surveillance missions in the area. China protested against a surveillance mission by a US spy plane near one of its artificial islands in April.

China argues that the artificial islands will be good for search and rescue operations, disaster relief, environmental protection and defence purposes. Beijing also rejects claims that the islands will hamper freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

“They are not targeted at any other country [and] do not affect the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all countries in accordance with international law in the South China Sea,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in the statement, describing the building work as “lawful, reasonable and justified” activity.

The statement came days after a deal was agreed between the US and China to establish a dialogue mechanism between their militaries for humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations. The deal comes before Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned Washington visit in September.

It also came on the final day for Beijing to submit its defense to an international arbitration tribunal amid the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea. Manila had filed a case against Chinese claims in the international arbitration tribunal in 2013, but Beijing refuses to take part in the process, saying the involved countries should solve the problem between themselves alone.

The South China Sea comprises roughly 1.4 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean stretching from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, spanning west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia, and east of Vietnam.

The hundreds of islands in the sea are mostly uninhabited and the territorial claims are based on historical sovereignty.

China makes use of its historic "the nine-dash line" claim that was mapped in the 1940s over the disputed sea, while Manila is planning to submit a 300-year-old map,  known as the Murillo Velarde published in 1734 by a Jesuit priest, to the international tribunal to defend its position.

TRTWorld and agencies