China has stopped creating new land in the South China Sea, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in remarks made following a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Wednesday. Mr. Wang also called on countries in the region to speed up talks on how claimant states should conduct themselves in the disputed waters, Reuters reports.
When asked by a reporter whether China would temporarily halt reclamation work in the strategic waterway, he replied: "China has already stopped. You just take an airplane to take a look."
The ten-nation ASEAN meeting has convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this week, where the disputed South China Sea has dominated talks.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Wang on Wednesday, where he expressed concern over the scale of Chinese projects in the contested region, and asked the foreign minister to halt “problematic actions” in the area to provide an opportunity for diplomacy, a senior State Department official said, according to The New York Times.
Philippines foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose said China had stopped reclamation because it had already formed its new islands.
"At the same time, China announced they are moving on to Phase 2, which is construction of facilities on the reclaimed features. The Philippines views these activities as destabilizing," Mr. Jose said.
In a statement, Japan's senior vice foreign minister Minoru Kiuchi "voiced deep concern over unilateral actions that change the status quo and heighten tensions in the South China Sea, including large-scale land reclamation, the construction of outposts and their use for military purposes".
In June, China spurred tension when it announced its reclamation in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea would soon be complete, also adding at the time that it would continue to build facilities on its man-made islands there.
At the time, Zhang Feng, an Asian affairs specialist at Australian National University in Canberra called the announcement “a conciliatory signal without any substantive policy change,” in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
China has said the outposts will have undefined military purposes, as well as help with maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, and navigation, according to Reuters. Beijing lays claim to most of the ocean, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei claim overlapping territory.
US officials have estimated that China has created more than 2,000 acres of artificial land, made by piling sand from the sea floor on top of reefs. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan have all expanded islands in the Spratlys as well, but those efforts are dwarfed by the scale of China’s land reclamation.
"The Chinese side stays committed to peacefully resolving disputes with relevant countries through consultation and negotiation," Wang told Kerry, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry, and adding, "Countries outside the region should respect efforts by China and ASEAN countries."