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China denies militarizing South China Sea

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind in May 2015. Controlling the seas may prove easier for China than controlling the air, according to observers.

CONOR MINTO/U.S. NAVY

By DAVID TWEED | Bloomberg News (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 22, 2015

HONG KONG –– China has rejected claims that 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.”

“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 nonconfrontational 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 U.S. is trying to preserve 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.

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.

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.

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