AFP Photo / Rolex Dela Pena
China has cautioned that US warnings to halt construction of a massive artificial island and airfield will not deter it from completing the project in disputed waters of the South China Sea. This is the fourth such undertaking in the last 12-18 months.
China’s top general has defended the construction of the 3,000-meter island as “justifiable” in a scornful response to swift American criticism that followed evidence of large-scale military construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands area.
China currently claims almost all of the South China Sea, with some claims being leveled by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. However, its land reclamation projects have been causing the West and its strategic partners in the area a headache, owing to the already-tense political situation in the region.
Despite this, of all the claimants in the South China Sea, China is the only one currently not occupying an island with an airfield.
"The US is obviously biased considering that the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam have already set up military facilities," People's Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan told the state-run Global Times newspaper, as cited by AFP.
Although China said on Monday that its construction is aimed "mainly to improve the living standards of the reef-stationed soldiers," a report by IHS Jane’s Defence says that a harbor has been dug on the eastern side of the reef, which appears to be large enough to take in tankers and warships.
Reuters / Stringer
US criticism followed just days after the report.
"We urge China to stop its land reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities," US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool told reporters.
To this China replied that the US is “not a claimant” in the South China Sea, with a later editorial in the Global Times adding that it has been behaving “selfishly” in the region.
"China's construction on the Yongshu Reef will not be affected by US words," the editorial added.
Other similar Chinese projects include artificial islands at three other reefs, but none were large enough to include an airstrip, which put China at a great disadvantage to its neighbors.
Still, according to the initial report, the quality of the materials is far superior to that of other claimants, and taken together with China’s much greater military prowess, “the facility appears purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions, or at least provide China with a much stronger negotiating position if talks over the dispute were ever held.”
Construction activity in the Fiery Cross Reef dates back to May, with observers spotting dredging ships, which are instrumental to digging out channels and making harbors.
South China Sea disputes are numerous and involve claims to both islands and maritime space. The Paracel and Spratly Islands are the prime disputed land resources.
The strategic value of the area is great. Rich in oil and natural gas, it also provides for very convenient shipping lanes.