The U.S. State Department is calling for China to alter its approach toward the South China Sea, a strategically important and resource-rich waterway that has long been claimed by several countries.
State Department spokeswoman Anna Richey-Allen said, "We call on China, as well as other claimants, to refrain from taking any steps towards the construction of new facilities, militarization of disputed features, and further land reclamation in the South China Sea, and to commit to resolving disputes peacefully with other claimants."
The statement comes as China nears completion of the construction of military structures on a group of islands in the South China Sea, Reuters reports.
Unnamed U.S. officials told the news service construction is almost complete on nearly two dozen structures with retractable roofs designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles on the Spratly Island chain.
"Militarization of outposts raises tensions, and these recent reports have generated concern among countries in the region," Richey-Allen said.
Test for Trump administration
The development could be considered a military escalation by China, several experts told VOA, and could serve as an early test for President Donald Trump, who took a hard line against China throughout his campaign.
“This is part of their effort to eventually control that first island chain in the (South China Sea) and assert their claim, even though they have been completely repudiated by the International Court of Appeals, The Hague, based on the Law of the Sea Treaty, of which they are a member,” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council told VOA.
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Hawaii-based security think tank Pacific Forum, told VOA this was another step in China’s recent attempts to further militarize the islands.
“Clearly they are intending to build facilities that allow them to permanently store or deploy equipment of a military nature to these islands,” he said.
A report released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in December shows China has been building airstrips and anti-aircraft systems on the islands since at least June.
China's Defense Ministry issued a statement at the time, saying the construction was "mainly for civilian use."