A statement from the foreign ministry said China would build infrastructure to carry out functions ranging from maritime search and rescue to environmental conservation and scientific research.
Apart from satisfying defence purposes, it said the main purpose of such projects was civilian in nature and not targeted at any third parties. China says the projects were “lawful, reasonable and justified,” while causing no harm to the marine environment.
The reclamation work has raised tensions with the United States, and Vietnam and other countries in the region which fear China will use the artificial islands as military bases and to assert control over navigation in the South China Sea.
However, in a sign that developments were far from over, a statement posted to the ministry’s website said China would complete project works.
“It is learned from relevant Chinese competent departments that, as planned, the land reclamation project of China’s construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands will be completed in the upcoming days,” the statement said, using the Chinese term for the Spratly islands, which lie at the heart of the South China Sea territorial dispute.
Apart from satisfying defence goals, it said the main purpose of such projects was civilian in nature and not targeted at any third parties. It said the projects fell within the scope of Chinese sovereignty.
The statement, attributed to ministry spokesman Lu Kang, said the projects “do not affect the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all countries in accordance with international law”.
That assertion will likely be scrutinised by the US military following an incident last month during which a US Navy plane flying near one of the reclaimed islands was repeatedly challenged by the Chinese military and told to leave the area.
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 say they own parts.
The US 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.
The reclamation work has sparked fears China will use the artificial islands as military bases and to assert control over navigation in the South China Sea.
According to the US, Beijing’s building programme on reefs and atolls now totals more than 2,000 acres (800 hectares) and includes up to two airstrips capable of handling large military planes.
Vietnam, with whom China has clashed bitterly over the Spratlys and other islands, is sending its defence minister to Beijing this week for talks in regards the matter.