BEIJING (Reuters) - The amount of military facilities China builds on islands in the South China Sea depends on the level of threat it faces although China does not seek militarisation, the navy chief told his U.S. counterpart on Wednesday.
Every year more than $5 trillion (3.52 trillion pounds) of world trade is shipped through the South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, which China claims almost entirely. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
China has been reclaiming land and building artificial islands there that it says are mostly for civilian uses but are also for defensive purposes.
This month, Beijing landed three flights on Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly archipelago, angering Vietnam and the Philippines and drawing criticism from the United States, which expressed deep concern that it will exacerbate tension in the region.
Speaking on a teleconference with U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said the landings were made to see whether the airport was up to civilian airline standards, the Defence Ministry said.
This would better help China fulfil its international obligations and provide a service to the rest of the world, Wu added, although China has yet to give any indication that foreign airlines may be allowed to use the new airport.
“Our necessary defensive step of building on islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands is not militarisation, but this has been maliciously hyped up by certain countries and media,” Wu said, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys.
Whether or not the islands are militarised depends on the purpose of the construction and how facilities are used once they are completed, he added.
“We will certainly not seek the militarisation of the islands and reefs, but we won’t not set up defences. How many defences completely depends on the level of threat we face,” Wu said.
China’s navy has both the ability and the determination to protect the Spratly Islands, he added, without elaboration.
China rebuked Washington in October after a U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of the islands. U.S. officials have said they plan additional patrols in coming months, but no dates have been set for the next such exercise.
Earlier in the day, China’s Foreign Ministry said that a $1-billion deepwater oil rig was not drilling in disputed territory in the South China Sea, in response to a warning from Vietnam against such activity.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Hugh Lawson