China’s military yesterday compared its controversial island-building in the South China Sea to ordinary construction such as road-building going on elsewhere in the country, trying to deflect criticism over an issue seen as inflaming tensions in the region.
At the same venue, however, the Defence Ministry issued a report reaffirming China’s more assertive approach to national defence that has put its neighbours on guard.
The document on China’s military strategy said the navy would be adding “open seas protection” to its traditional remit of “offshore waters defence,” while boosting its ability to counterattack and conduct joint operations at sea.
Meanwhile, the air force will “endeavour to shift its focus from territorial air defence to both defence and offence,” said the 25-page report, which was issued in English and Chinese at a rare news conference presided over by uniformed officers.
The report’s release and comments from ministry spokesman Yang Yujun at the briefing followed a formal Chinese protest over an incident last week in which a Chinese navy dispatcher warned off a US Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.
The incident, documented by a CNN news crew on board the US plane, prompted a testy editorial on Monday in the official Communist Party newspaper Global Times that warned that Washington should not test Beijing’s restraint or China would have “no choice but to engage.”
China has bristled at what it sees as US interference in the region and says it is within its sovereign rights in developing islands made from sand piled on top of reefs and atolls.
The US and many of China’s neighbours see the island-building as an upending of the status quo by China to bolster its claims to the region and possibly pave the way for military installations far from its shores.
In one disputed area, the Spratly Islands, US officials say China has created about 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014 that could be used as airstrips. The US argues that man-made constructions cannot be used to claim sovereignty and is closely watching for signs that China will seek to back up its claims by basing missile systems and fighter aircraft on the newly formed islands.
However, Yang sought to minimise the military significance of the island developments and said the issue has been exaggerated by those seeking an excuse to take unspecified actions in response – a clear reference to the United States.
“Every day all around China, there are all kinds of construction projects being started (such as) building homes, paving roads, building bridges, opening new farm land, etc,” Yang said.
“Looking from the angle of sovereignty, China’s development of construction on its islands is no different at all from all the other types of construction going on.”