China dismisses US call to halt island construction project in South China Sea

China says its construction of an island on top of a reef in the contested Spratly Islands is 'completely justifiable.' It appears the expanded island could accommodate an airfield.

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs/AP/File
In this Feb. 25, 2014 file photo taken by surveillance planes and released May 15 by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, a Chinese vessel, top center, is used to expand structures and land on the Johnson Reef, called Mabini by the Philippines and Chigua by China, at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Philippines.

China has dismissed a US call to halt construction on a new artificial island it is building in the disputed South China Sea, calling the US "biased." The island under construction is reportedly large enough to accommodate an airfield, and would give China a new base of operations in a region where it contests claims with several other countries.

Retired Chinese Gen. Luo Yuan told the state-owned Global Times that the 3,000-meter-long island being dredged on Fiery Cross Reef, also known as Yongshu Reef, in the Spratly Islands "is completely legitimate and justifiable." His comments echo China's longstanding line, reiterated last month by a Chinese defense spokesman, that "China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters."

The Spratly Islands, whose surrounding waters are home to numerous natural resources, are contested by several countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. But unlike most of its competitors, notes defense outlet IHS Janes, China has lacked a base of operations in the region with an airfield.

But Janes reported last Thursday that satellite imagery shows that over the past three months, China appears to have built a 3,000-meter by 400- to 500-meter island on top of Fiery Cross Reef. The Chinese military site had already been home to "a pier, air-defence guns, anti-frogmen defences, communications equipment, and a greenhouse," but the expanded island looks large enough to host an airfield.

The work at Fiery Cross thus brings parity but is likely to cause alarm among the other claimants. China has previously shown it is willing to spend blood and treasure to assert its territorial claims in this region. Given its massive military advantage over the other claimants in terms of quantity and quality of materiel, this 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.

The US over the weekend called on China "to stop its land reclamation program and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities," Reuters reports. But China had little use for the US suggestion.

"I think anyone in the outside world has no right to make irresponsible remarks on China-related activities," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in August that this year has seen a much testier relationship between China and its fellow claimants of the South China Sea. China has made "a series of forceful steps" to bolster its position in the region – but they appear "to violate an agreement that China signed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 12 years ago in which both sides pledged to 'exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.'"

“China has been very opportunistic, pushing and pushing to see what they can get ... and taking as much as they can,” says David Arase, who teaches international politics at the Johns Hopkins University campus in Nanjing, China.

By taking small steps to avoid provoking Washington to act in support of its regional allies, China is trying to “dishearten” rival claimants and “resign them to the fact that they have to give up their rights,” Professor Arase says.

“They are continuing with their salami slicing, reef by reef, step by step,” said Tran Truong Thuy, an analyst at Vietnam’s Institute for East Sea Studies, at a recent CSIS conference. “In reality they want to change ... the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.”

But China's forceful push – spurred in part by President Xi Jinping's effort to appear strong to the public back home – risks alienating its neighbors, and making its coexistence with them more challenging than it needs to be. “China’s Navy could already beat all the ASEAN navies. The question is whether it would be worth it,” Xue Li, head of the international strategy department at the China Academy of Social Sciences, told the Monitor. “We would pick up a sesame seed and throw away a watermelon.”

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