November 22, 2015
China refuted claims 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 non-confrontational 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 South China Sea was a topic at both Asean in Malaysia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Manila that preceded it, as the U.S. seeks to preserve its 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.
Speaking at APEC, Obama called for bold steps to reduce tensions in the area and urged countries to use international forums to settle their disputes. “We’re not claimants ourselves but we fully support a process in which through international laws and international norms these issues are resolved,” Obama said.