BEIJING — China has defended its construction on disputed islands in the South China Sea as “normal,” after a US think tank released new satellite images showing deployment of radar and other equipment.
Beijing claims nearly all of the sea and has been turning reefs in the Spratly and Paracel chains into islands, installing military facilities and equipment on them.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) said the buildup continued this year despite rival claims across the sea from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Responding to the report, foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang on Friday said: “If China is conducting any peaceful construction activity or deploying necessary defense facilities, it’s very normal because it’s within our sovereignty.”
“We believe that some individuals are making a fuss about this. They’re trying to hype it up,” Lu told a regular news briefing.
Over the course of 2017, China has been advancing the next phase of development with
construction of infrastructure to support air and naval bases, such as underground storage areas and “large radar and sensor arrays,” the Washington-based think tank said in a report on Thursday.
Fiery Cross Reef saw the most construction this past year, with building work spanning 27 acres, or about 110,000 square metres, Amti said its analysis of satellite images showed.
There is now a high frequency radar array at the northern end of the island, it added.
In Manila, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano on Saturday downplayed Amti’s report, saying the Chinese were not occupying new areas in the disputed waters.
“We’ve never said that everyone stopped (building) or some are not building. What we said is, they’re not now occupying any new feature that’s uninhabited and there’s (no) new building in new areas,” Cayetano told reporters.
He said Manila has monitored “a lot” of construction in areas occupied by different countries.
China, Malaysia and Vietnam were “repairing” their facilities and the Philippines was also doing “repairs” on Pag-asa island, he said without specify what Filipinos were fixing.
Meanwhile, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday that China’s southern island province of Hainan has revealed a satellite launch plan to “assist remote sensing coverage” over the South China Sea.
The mission will start in 2019 with the launch of three optical satellites, Xinhua cited the Sanyan Institute of Remote Sensing as saying.
The report follows recent moves by China to ease concerns among rival claimants around the sea, through which some $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes.
Vietnam and China agreed last month during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi to avoid conflicts in the hotly contested waters.
At a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in November, China and Asean countries agreed to begin talks on a much-delayed code of conduct for the sea.
The Philippines had for many years stood alongside Vietnam as one of the region’s strongest opponents to Chinese expansionism.
Following Manila’s complaint to a UN-backed tribunal, the panel ruled last year that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis.
But the Philippines, after President Duterte took office last year, decided not to use the ruling to pressure China.
He instead chose to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid.
Cayetano said the Chinese construction would be taken up at the upcoming discussions between China and the Asean on the code of conduct.
Manila will also take up the matter with Beijing during a bilateral consultation early next year.
What was important to the Philippines was not losing more territories, according to Cayetano.
“Have we lost a single inch of water or any features when President Duterte became president? No. But we lost a lot in the previous administration and administrations. Again, we’re not blaming them but we’re trying to solve that problem,” Cayetano said.
“President Duterte thinks that if we went all out with the criticism … we’ll keep winning international support and legal cases but there won’t be an enforcement mechanism. China or other countries will continue building and getting more areas,” he said. —Reports from AFP and Dona Z. Pazzibugan