BEIJING (AP) — Defying a U.S. call to halt the project, China defended its land reclamation in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, saying the work is for public service use, although a London-based security group says the new island could host a military airfield to intimidate neighbors.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the construction on some reefs in the archipelago was to enable Chinese citizens working there to "better perform international obligations in terms of search, rescue and other public services."
In a recent report, IHS Jane's said satellite images taken in August and November showed that Chinese dredgers had created a land mass almost the entire length of Fiery Cross Reef, which was previously under water. The security group said it is China's largest construction project in the island chain.
IHS Jane's said the new island — at least 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) long — could be China's first military airstrip in the Spratly Islands and might be aimed at helping Beijing impose its sovereignty claims over neighboring countries that also claim the territory.
"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 report said.
Tensions have been rising as Beijing has grown more assertive about its claim over the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also crisscrossed by shipping routes. Its deployment of an oil rig near the Paracel Islands triggered a bitter standoff with Vietnam, where a wave of anti-China riots broke out in May, killing at least one Chinese worker.
In August, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proposed that all countries with competing claims halt any provocative actions, such as land reclamation, but China rejected the suggestion and said the tensions were being overblown.
Over the weekend, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool urged China to cease the land reclamation project and engage in diplomatic talks.
Hua told a regular news briefing on Monday that no country has "a right to make irresponsible remarks" about the reclamation.
She said China has "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
Hua said China has insisted that maritime disputes be resolved peacefully and through negotiations.