YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — China’s artificial island-building on territory contested by other nations in the South China Sea “will be completed in the upcoming days,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said Tuesday.
China has reclaimed more than 2,000 acres of sea bottom in the Spratly Islands — much of it within the past year — an action that the United States and neighboring countries say has provoked tensions in the region.
China has used its perceived rights over the territory in recent months to attempt to order U.S. military vessels and aircraft to change course; however, the U.S. considers the water and airspace to be part of the global commons under existing international law.
“Apart from satisfying the need of necessary military defense, the main purpose of China's construction activities is to meet various civilian demands and better perform China's international obligations and responsibilities,” the Chinese statement said. “After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements.”
China has already constructed hangars and an airstrip long enough to accommodate military aircraft at Fiery Cross Reef, which is naturally little more than a few rocks peeking just over the surface at high tide. Satellite imagery shows that the artificially constructed island built around the rock includes self-propelled artillery, U.S. officials said at a security summit in Singapore on May 30.
When a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane flew near the reef last month, a Chinese radio dispatcher warned the plane away, declaring that it had entered a Chinese “military alert zone.” No language for such a zone exists within relevant international law, according to U.S. observers.
Chinese coast vessels have also held-low-level clashes with Vietnamese and Philippine fishing vessels in recent years over island and ocean access.
Vietnam’s Thanh Nien news reported Monday that two Vietnamese fishing boats near the contested Paracel Islands were shot at earlier this month with water cannons for hours by Chinese vessels, after which their catch and equipment were taken.
Last year, China’s deployment of an offshore oil rig near the Paracels led to water cannon firings and collisions between larger Chinese ships and Vietnamese vessels, with each side blaming the other for instigating the conflict.
China maintained its right to “firmly guard” its territorial sovereignty Tuesday but said it would work within international norms.
“China is committed to the path of peaceful development,” according to the statement. “She follows a foreign policy of forging friendship and partnership with her neighbours, and a defense policy that is defensive in nature.”
China maintains an ambiguous claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea. Those claims are disputed to some extent by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia. China most often bases its claims on what it deems historical discovery, while rival claimants typically cite the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China’s claims to a vast Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding the rocks and islands within the sea, and what activities are allowed within it, directly conflict with the views of the U.S. and most other nations on freedom of navigation and overflight.
More than $5 trillion in annual global trade transits the South China Sea, along with $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade, according to U.S. figures.