China says it is "extremely concerned" after leaders of Southeast Asian countries expressed worry about land reclamation and navigational freedom in the disputed South China Sea, its Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.
China's reclamation work in the South China Sea has become the latest source of tension with some of its smaller neighbours. Regional leaders express concerns about Beijing’s land reclamation efforts in waters which are claimed in part by four other nations.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said after a summit this week in Kuala Lumpur that reclamation work had "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said it was not a problem between China and ASEAN, repeating that China believed the dispute should be resolved via direct talks between the claimants.
"On this issue China has exercised extreme restraint," he said.
He also rejected the claims that there are problems with freedom of navigation in the waters.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Japanese leaders that Washington's treaty commitments to Japan's security remain "iron-clad" and cover all territories under Tokyo's administration, including tiny islands in the East China Sea that China also claims.
Kerry stressed that the United States saw the disputed Senkaku Islands, known in Chinese as the Diaoyu, as firmly under Japan's control.
Japan's foreign and defense ministers to unveil updated US-Japan defence guidelines on the eve of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's talks with President Barack Obama.
Although officials said the new doctrine is not aimed at China, there has been increasing concern over moves by Beijing to try to scoop up disputed areas of the South China and East China Seas.
China says its reclamation work is mainly for civilian purposes but could also be used for national defence.
In a speech to ASEAN heads of state, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said the "massive reclamations" by China posed a threat to the security and stability of the region.
Hong also rejected allegations from Philippine fishery officials that the reclamation work threatens fish production due to coral reef damage.
"China pays more attention to the environment than anyone else when it comes to construction on our islands," he said.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, with overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the Spratly Islands and may be planning another.
Despite its rhetoric of a united Asean community, the regional grouping has a history of failing to respond in a robust manner to Beijing due to China’s immense trade and diplomatic leverage because not all Asean states have a stake in the maritime disputes.
Japan and the US are expected to include the Self-Defence Forces and US military conduct joint patrols and surveillance in the South China Sea when they update the bilateral defence cooperation guidelines.