China is defying calls to halt a land reclamation project in disputed waters in the South China Sea, saying it is for search, rescue and public services.
A London-based security group said the new island could host a military airfield to intimidate neighbors, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The United States called on China to stop the project, warning increased tensions in the region.
But Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the construction on some reefs in the archipelago is meant 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.
China’s 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, US 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.
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