China will complete land reclamation projects on its disputed South China Sea territorial claims as planned within days, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, in an apparent bid to reassure its neighbors over moves seen as sharpening tensions in the strategically vital region.
However, in a sign that developments were far from over, a statement posted to the ministry's website said China would follow up by building infrastructure to carry out functions ranging from maritime search and rescue to environmental conservation and scientific research.
The Foreign Ministry did not identify which of the seven reefs undergoing reclamation would be finished soon.
China stepped up its creation of artificial islands last year, a move that has alarmed several countries in Asia and drawn growing criticism from Washington. There have been recent tensions between China’s navy and the U.S. military around the Spratlys.
“Based on our understanding from the relevant authorities, in accordance with the set work plan, the land reclamation project for China's construction on some islands and reefs on the Nansha islands will be completed soon,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, attributed to ministry spokesman Lu Kang, that used the Chinese name for the Spratlys and gave no time frame.
The disputed islands lie amid some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential undersea wealth of oil, gas and minerals. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, while Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also lay claim to parts or all of it.
U.S. officials have said the pace and scale of China's reclamation work far outstripped that of other claimants. Recent satellite images show a hive of building activity and other work on the new islands.
The U.S. says it takes no side on the sovereignty questions, but insists on the right of free navigation and urges all parties to negotiate a settlement.
According to the U.S., Beijing's building program on reefs and atolls now totals more than 2,000 acres and includes up to two airstrips capable of handling large military planes.
The Foreign Ministry reiterated China's stance that the islands would help with maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental protection and offer navigational assistance as well as have undefined military purposes.
After reclamation was complete, China would build facilities to “fulfill the relevant functions,” it said.
The construction was within the scope of China's sovereignty, the Foreign Ministry said, adding it would not affect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.