China might push on with work on South China Sea reefs despite warning from US President Barack Obama

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 12:42am

China might press on with land reclamation in the strategically important South China Sea despite US President Barack Obama’s warning last week that the work would affect peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the area, Chinese military sources and observers say.

In talks with President Xi Jinping on Friday, Obama said he had “candid” discussions on Asia-Pacific disputes, voicing concerns about Chinese militarisation of artificial islands in the waters where China has competing territorial claims with several Southeast Asian neighbours.

Obama said he conveyed US unease over land reclamation and militarisation of the  waters, saying it “makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully”.

READ MORE: All you need to know about Xi's US visit

Xi denied there was a military build-up but added that the islands in the  area were Chinese territory from “ancient times” and Beijing had the right to uphold its  maritime rights.  

Southeast Asian nations are increasingly worried about China’s reclamation projects, which they see as Beijing flexing its military muscle.

In May, Beijing said  its navy was shifting from an “offshore defence” power to one committed to “open-seas protection”.

“China needs those artificial islands and airstrips in the South China Sea, because [the area] is a supply base for its navy and air force in the Asia-Pacific,” a source close to the Chinese military said, adding that Beijing would carry out reclamation when necessary.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Liang Guoliang said Xi was taking a tough stand on South China Sea issues to scotch hopes among other claimants that he would give ground under US pressure.

Bonnie Glaser, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Beijing dramatically scaled back its South China Sea reclamation projects ahead of Xi’s state visit to the US. “[But] the Chinese are not responding at all to the Obama administration’s proposal to halt land reclamation, construction and militarisation,” she said.

The Chinese are not responding at all to the Obama administration’s proposal to halt land reclamation
Bonnie Glaser, Centre for Strategic and International Studies

“The construction is continuing and I think that’s just a message to the US that China thinks what it is doing is legal, legitimate and justifiable, and that all the other claimants have undertaken reclamation and construction.”

Jane’s Defence Weekly published last week satellite images of Fiery Cross Reef  dated September 20 that it said showed China had completed a 3km runway. Earlier reports said two other runways were likely to be built on Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly Islands.

Taiwan’s National Security Bureau chief Lee Hsiang-chou  said intelligence showed five of Beijing’s seven land reclamation projects in the Spratlys were approved by Xi personally.

Additional reporting by Andrea Chen and Reuters