China could have seized islands occupied by other countries but it has great restraint over competing claims in the South China Sea.
Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China is the real victim after “dozens” of its islands and reefs in the Spratlys were illegally occupied by three of the claimants, according to Reuters.
Beijing has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion in shipborne trade passes every year.
Reclamation work and the building of three airfields and other facilities on some of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago has alarmed the region and raised concern in Washington that China is extending its military reach deep into maritime Southeast Asia.
Liu did not name the countries but all claimants except Brunei have military fortifications in the Spratlys.
“The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighbouring countries,” Liu said.
“But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Tensions over the South China Sea are likely to dominate the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur later this week.
While not on the formal agenda of the APEC summit on Nov 18 and 19 in Manila, the South China Sea is expected to be discussed on the sidelines.
US President Barack Obama, who arrived in Manila on Tuesday, will attend both meetings.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Manila for APEC while Premier Li Keqiang will represent China in Malaysia.
Liu said China did not want the South China Sea to be the focus of the East Asia Summit but added it would be hard to avoid and that some countries would raise it.
China’s island building in the Spratlys was not about militarisation, Liu said.
He said too much attention has been placed on the length of China’s airstrips.
Satellite photographs show construction is finished on a 3,000-meter airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef.
Security experts say such an airfield would be able to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft.
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