KUALA LUMPUR — China’s construction on its own islands and reefs in the South China Sea is aimed at improving the living conditions of those living there and better fulfilling its international duties, a senior Chinese diplomat said in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 22.
That is something China is obligated to do and should not be misinterpreted as an attempt to militarize the body of water vital to global trade, vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said at a press briefing on the sidelines of a series of regional leaders’ meetings.
The briefing came hours after Premier Li Keqiang, who is here for the summits, raised a five-pronged proposal to uphold and promote peace and stability in the South China Sea and urged outside countries to refrain from taking actions that may cause tension in the region.
China’s construction of facilities, mainly civilian ones, on seven of its islands and reefs in the South China Sea is something China has to do, Liu stressed.
It is aimed at improving the living and work conditions of personnel on those islands and providing high-quality public services that will also benefit surrounding countries, he explained, adding that some construction projects will be completed within years.
Meanwhile, Liu pointed out that a total of 42 of China’s islands and reefs in the region are being illegally occupied by three of its neighboring countries.
“To build necessary military defense facilities on islands far away from our mainland is required by the need both of national defense and of safeguarding our islands and reefs,” Liu said. “They should not be mistaken for actions to militarize the South China Sea.”
In addition, he noted that some major countries outside the region “are exercising their so-called freedom of navigation by sending airplanes and warships while strengthening military cooperation with countries in the region.”
“Isn’t that a trend of militarization?” he said. “We should stay on high alert against it.”
“Don’t make troubles on purpose,” he warned.
The recent intrusion of a US warship into waters near China’s Nansha Islands in the South China Sea, over which Beijing has voiced “strong discontent,” was a “political provocation,” Liu said.
He stressed that when exercising the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, countries concerned need to show respect for the sovereignty and security of the countries along the coast.
The situation in the South China Sea is generally peaceful. Over 100,000 ships from countries around the world sail safely and freely through the patch of water every year.
The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has never been obstructed, Liu stressed, noting that over the past few decades there has not been a single case of commercial ships running into obstruction there.
All countries see eye to eye on navigational freedom for commercial ships and ships for civilian purposes, he said, adding that no problem in this regard has been reported in the South China Sea.
For military vessels and ships for military purposes, however, countries do have conflicting views regarding their passage, especially in territorial waters, the vice foreign minister pointed out.
“There are no clear provisions in international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said.
US naval fleets have been sailing across the South China Sea for many years and not a single time have they encountered any problem in doing so, Liu told the briefing.
Considering the existence of pirates and crimes in the sea, it is a shared task for China, ASEAN and other concerned countries to safeguard maritime security as well as the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Liu added.
China, which has solved territorial disputes with many countries peacefully in recent years, maintains that the South China Sea rows should be addressed with a dual-track approach.
Specifically, the disputes should be resolved by directly concerned parties through consultation and negotiation, while China and ASEAN members work together to uphold regional peace and stability.
On the “time- and energy-consuming” negotiations on a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, Liu noted that much progress has been made since China and ASEAN officially embarked on COC consultations in 2013.
China has made relentless efforts to push forward COC talks, he said, citing a list of elements for the possible structure of the COC drafted by Chinese and ASEAN delegates at an October meeting in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu.
The headway has laid good groundwork for future COC discussions, said the senior diplomat, adding that China and ASEAN will speed up the consultation process and strive for an early conclusion of the COC based on consensus.
Countries in and out of the region, he said, should help create a favorable atmosphere by cementing political trust between China and ASEAN countries, rather than stoke tensions by magnifying the differences.