China calls halt to island building in South China Sea. Sign of compromise?

China has earned US opprobrium over artificial enhancement of tiny islands in the Pacific that it seeks to claim as its territory. China has added some 2,000 acres of land, some of which is being purposed as military airstrips. 

Ritchie B. Tongo/AP
This aerial photo taken from a military plane shows China's reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. The dispute over the strategic waterways of the South China Sea has intensified, pitting a rising China against its smaller and militarily weaker neighbors.

China announced Tuesday it will stop new island building in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, but says it will continue to develop the outposts it controls in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

While the announcement from China’s Foreign Ministry was an apparent bid to reassure neighboring countries, and the United States, in the strategically important region, concerns about Beijing's intentions have not abated, reports The Associated Press. 

Tensions are likely to remain high as China says it will build out military and civilian facilities on the islands that it has industriously filled in and expanded. In a statement on its website, the Foreign Ministry said the facilities were designed to carry out maritime search and rescue missions, environmental conservation, and scientific research.

“After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in the statement. He defended the building of islands, saying that it fell “within the scope of China’s sovereignty” and was "lawful, reasonable and justified.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the “imminent end to China’s island-building work could signal a willingness to seek compromise with Washington and rival claimants in the South China Sea.” China's President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the US in September. 

“This is a step toward halting land reclamation, which the US has demanded, and at the same time, China can tell its people that it has accomplished what it wanted to do,” Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, told the Journal. “China is showing that—as a major power—it can control escalation, that it has the initiative, and that it can do what it sees fit for its interests.”

The reclamation work has raised concerns that China will use the artificial islands to assert control over navigation in the South China Sea. It has built more than 2,000 acres of land over reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands over the last 18 months, according to US estimates.

Six countries – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei – lay overlapping claims to the South China Sea, an area that is rich in oil and natural gas. An estimated $5.3 billion in trade pass through it every year.

Neighboring countries and the US have also been alarmed by Beijing’s 175 percent increase in military spending since 2003. Some of the most closely watched military facilities are under construction on Fiery Cross Reef, where a radar system and 10,000-foot runway could be operational by the end of the year, reports Reuters.

“Despite the fact that China has suspended building on the islands and reefs, the US still sees China’s actions as trying to establish a new status quo, which the US does not intend to accept,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told The New York Times.

The Foreign Ministry’s announcement on Tuesday follows the release last month of a new policy document issued by the State Council, China’s cabinet, that says the Chinese Navy will shift its focus to "open seas protection" rather than "offshore waters defense" alone. The new plan has threatened to further escalate tensions.

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