SINGAPORE - China has strongly rejected U.S. criticism of its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo told a security summit in Singapore Sunday that construction work is "justified, legitimate and reasonable," and that the projects are for the purpose of providing "international public services."
The admiral, who is the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army asserted “there are no changes in China’s claims in the South China Sea. Nor are there changes in China’s position on the peaceful resolution of the relevant disputes through negotiation and consultation."
The admiral was barraged with questions from a skeptical audience of military officers, diplomats, scholars and journalists. But the high-ranking Chinese military officer stuck to his script, offering no clarification.
“To simply read prepared answers to questions demonstrates I think an in-your-face dismissal of the concerns that were expressed here by members of the international community. And I think there will really be great disappointment,” Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told VOA.
The lack of answers from Sun raises the anxiety level and leads to a conclusion China intends to militarize the disputed islands on which it is building, Glaser added.
The Chinese admiral’s comments came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter delivered a blunt rebuke to China for being “out of step” with international norms amid the unprecedented pace of island reclamation, saying “it is unclear how much farther China will go.”
The actions are increasing “the risk of miscalculation and conflict,” Carter said in a speech Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Carter noted China has reclaimed over 800 hectares, more than all other claimants combined and has done so in only the last 18 months.
“There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features,” he said. “We all know there is no military solution to the South China Sea disputes.”
Disputed reefs, shoals
The defense secretary also made it clear the United States would not recognize any Chinese attempt to assert a 22-kilometer territorial sea limit around disputed islands, reefs and shoals.
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all around the world,” Carter said.
“After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” he added.
Earlier this month, China’s military ordered a U.S. Navy surveillance plane to leave the Spratly Islands area, but the aircraft ignored the demand.
In his speech, Carter also announced a new $425 million regional maritime initiative to assist Southeast Asian nations in improving their naval and coast guard capabilities.
At a news conference on site following Carter’s speech, a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation touring the region backed up the defense secretary.
“We believe that what Secretary Carter said today was very important. Now we want to see it translated into action.” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
“Our country is not going to back off,” added Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from the state of Hawaii, where the U.S. Pacific Command is headquartered.
The Shangri-La Dialogue took place just days after the release of an assertive Chinese defense white paper.
Analysts have interpreted the Chinese document, which was issued Tuesday, as a strong warning to Beijing’s Asian neighbors and to Washington about “busy meddling” by the U.S. military in the South China Sea, where China is intensively building islands.
U.S. Defense Department officials confirmed Friday that American surveillance imagery recently detected Chinese military weapons on one of the artificial islands built by China in the Spratly archipelago.
Although posing no military threat to U.S. ships or planes in the area, the motorized artillery pieces were reported to be within range of an island claimed by Vietnam, on which it has deployed various weaponry for some time.
The defense minister of Japan, which has a separate territorial dispute with the Chinese in the East China Sea, called on Beijing “to behave as a responsible power” and not stand in the way of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
China should “walk the walk, not talk the talk,” said Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong, in a speech Friday evening in front of the more than two dozen defense chiefs, called on China and ASEAN members “to break the vicious cycle” by adhering to international law and concluding a Code of Conduct.
The delegates also heard from the new chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, whose area of responsibility encompasses half of the Earth’s surface.
'Great Wall of Sand'
The U.S. Navy admiral has raised Chinese hackles by referring to China’s vast reclamation projects at sea as a “Great Wall of Sand” – a reference to the wall that guarded the ancient Chinese empire’s frontier.
“I don’t think I was overreacting,” Harris responded to a Chinese delegate’s query about his use of the term.
Despite the sometimes blunt verbal exchanges amid rising maritime tension in the region, veteran participants at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue characterized the tone as less hostile than in previous years.
Drama outside venue
There was some drama outside the venue.
Police shot and killed one person and detained two others early Sunday morning after a red sedan car in which they were traveling crashed through security barricades close to the Shangri-La Hotel.
The car had been halted at a checkpoint set up for the conference, but when the driver was asked to open the vehicle's trunk, he accelerated in a bid to escape, according to Singapore police.
Officers opened fire on the car, which came to a stop on a road adjacent to the luxury hotel.
A police statement said drugs were found on one of the persons detained.
The U.S. defense secretary was in the hotel at the time of the incident, but the Defense Department delegation was not aware of what happened until members learned of it hours later from news reports, said officials traveling with Carter.
The defense secretary departed Singapore later in the morning for Vietnam.
Access to the hotel was limited for hours, delaying the arrival of many delegates and journalists at the venue, but the Sunday morning plenary session began on time, featuring China's Admiral Sun alongside the defense ministers of Germany and New Zealand.