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China’s Activities in Disputed Waters Worry US, Southeast Asia


FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2014 file photo taken by surveillance planes and released May 15 by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, a Chinese vessel, top center, is used to expand structures and land on the Johnson Reef, called Mabini by the Philippines. (AP Photo/Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2014 file photo taken by surveillance planes and released May 15 by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, a Chinese vessel, top center, is used to expand structures and land on the Johnson Reef, called Mabini by the Philippines. (AP Photo/Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, File)

The United States and the Philippines have expressed concern about China’s efforts to reclaim and develop territory in the South China Sea. But the Chinese government is pushing forward. The government says its activities are lawful and do not affect or target any country.

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence recently released a report about issues facing China and its neighbors at a time of a Chinese naval buildup. China is increasing its number of naval warships and submarines that carry missiles.

The report notes that China is carrying out a major land reclamation effort around islands it controls in the South China Sea. The report describes Chinese efforts to develop an area near seven coral reefs in the Spratly Islands. As a result of this activity, the amount of land has expanded from about two hectares to more than 300 hectares. There is now enough new land for at least one runway for airplanes. The report says another airstrip could be ready by the end of this year.

Admiral Harry Harris heads the U.S. Pacific Command. He recently warned that China is building what he called a “great wall of sand” near the disputed islands. He also said how China acts in the future will decide whether the South China Sea will be a place of confrontation or cooperation.

China says its goals are peaceful. But it does not deny the military or strategic value of its activities. It says the development of the islands could lead to more detailed weather reports and improved safety for shipping in the South China Sea. It also says the islands could provide shelter for ships during severe storms.

Li Jinming is with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University. He defends China’s activities. He says China has not set up structures in the South China Sea as fast as other countries.

Professor Li says China is the only country that has an island in the area without an airstrip. He says no one criticized the Philippines and Malaysia when they built their runways. But now that China is building one, he says, neighboring countries are protesting.

In addition to the Philippines and Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have airstrips on their islands in the South China Sea. Experts say Mr. Li is correct in noting that China has started the construction work later than other countries. But they say China’s building program is much larger than that of other countries.

China's maritime claims in the South China Sea

China's maritime claims in the South China Sea

​This week, Philippines officials estimated China’s construction activities have hurt fragile underwater reefs. They said countries around the South China Sea have suffered yearly losses of $100 million because of the damage.

China’s neighbors and the United States are worried about more than just the Chinese construction. They criticize the way Chinese shipping has been used to strengthen the country’s claims to parts of the South China Sea. Last year, China placed a large oil rig near the coast of Vietnam. It used water cannons to keep Vietnamese ships from getting close to the equipment. The move led to deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. Relations between the countries fell to their lowest level in many years.

The area where China set up the oil rig was inside Vietnam’s 200-nautical mile economic zone. The zone was established under international law. Some observers have asked whether Chinese officials are willing to obey the rules or are trying to create their own.

China claims ownership of almost all of the South China Sea. It adds a line on maps to help publicize that position. The line follows close to the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines and reaches south to Brunei and Malaysia. The line does not follow territorial borders set by international law. China has not yet said if the line means it believes it controls all of the waters or just the islands and reefs in the area.

Ye Qiang is an assistant research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. He says he believes the line shows China believes it has control over islands and reefs and nearby waters.

He says the history of territorial disputes shows countries first demand more control, then negotiate. He says it is important to watch how China deals with the disputes.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Bill Ide reported this story from Beijing. Christopher Jones-Cruise wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

reef – n. a long line of rocks or coral or a high area of sand near the surface of the water in the ocean

confrontation – n. a situation in which people or groups fight, oppose or challenge each other in an angry way

strategic – adj. of or relating to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war or politics, usually over a long period of time; useful or important in achieving a plan or strategy

fragile – adj. easily broken or damaged

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