The U.S. finds China’s efforts to build military facilities on reclaimed South China Sea islands “troubling” and plans to raise the issue during annual talks in Washington this month, a top State Department official said.
Daniel Russel, assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was responding to a Chinese statement Tuesday, saying the country would complete island-building efforts “in the upcoming days.” Construction of military and civilian facilities on the new and expanded islands would continue, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
“The recent announcement out of Beijing that the Chinese government intends to continue and expand the construction of facilities on the reclaimed outposts that it’s been constructing in the South China Sea is troubling,” Russel said at a briefing Thursday in Washington. “Frankly, we’re concerned, and others are concerned.”
The U.S. will levy its protest during the Sino-U.S. talks, which are slated to start Monday and include Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang. Adding to tensions in this year’s meetings are claims that U.S. government computers were hacked by Chinese cyberspies and preparations for President Xi Jinping’s state visit planned for September.
China’s island-building program, which has reclaimed 2,000 acres of land, three-quarters of that amount since December, has upset smaller neighbors with competing territorial claims such as the Philippines. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last month called on all those involved in the dispute to stop reclaiming land.
China’s statement Tuesday announcing the completion of the program was seen as an attempt to ratchet down tensions.
“The prospect of militarizing those outposts runs counter to the goal of reducing tensions.” Russel said. “That’s why we consistently urge China to cease reclamation, to not construct further facilities, and certainly not to further militarize outposts in the South China Sea.”
China claims 80 percent of the water body based on a nine-dash line drawn on a controversial 1940s map. Five other countries and territories have rival claims, which China has said it would only resolve through two-way negotiations. Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have each reclaimed land in the sea.
Russel called claimants to stop their building projects and urged China to resolve the territorial disputes through diplomacy or arbitration.
“What we’re looking for is a South China Sea in which the smallest fishing boat from the Philippines or Vietnam or Malaysia has the ability to traverse international waters with the same confidence that the largest American warship can demonstrate in the same space,” he said.