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China said on Sunday it will continue to build military and civilian facilities on its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea and the United States was testing it by sending warships through the area.
“Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defense and for the protection of those islands and reefs,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
China planned to “expand and upgrade” the civilian facilities on the islands “to better serve commercial ships, fishermen, to help distressed vessels and provide more public services”, Liu said, adding that China rejects the notion that it is militarizing the South China Sea. He said China has mostly built civilian facilities.
Liu’s comments at the annual East Asia Summit, this year hosted by Kuala Lumpur, were some of the most forceful explanations that China has given regarding its position on the South China Sea.
Washington was testing Beijing with its insistence on “freedom of navigation” patrols in the strategic waterway, Liu said.
China, which claims almost the entire energy-rich South China Sea, has been transforming reefs into artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago and building airfields and other facilities on some of them. That has prompted concerns in Washington and across the region that Beijing is trying to militarize its claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, U.S. B-52 bombers flew near some of the islands, signaling Washington’s determination to challenge Beijing’s claim. At the end of October, the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed around one of them.
“This time, in a very high profile manner, the U.S. sent military vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s islands and reefs,” Liu said. “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation and the purpose is to test China’s response.”
Obama on Saturday called on countries to stop building artificial islands and militarizing their claims and said the United States would continue to assert its freedom of navigation rights in the sea.