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Reuters/David Ryder
“You’re welcome, neighbor.”
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China’s South China Sea island-building is for the public good (says China)

By Richard Macauley

Several Chinese military and civilian officials dismissed international concern over their nation’s policy of constructing and building on South China Sea islands at a forum hosted in Beijing this weekend (Oct. 17-18).

China’s vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told an audience of regional and international military chiefs, defense ministers, and scholars that not only would China continue to build on the islands—the sovereignty of which are disputed by several countries—but that it is doing so in everyone’s interest.

“Countries alongside the South China Sea and vessels sailing through the waters will receive better service,” said Liu, referring to the construction and operation of new lighthouses on two of the disputed Spratly Islands.

Liu’s comments, at a reception for the sixth Xiangshan Forum, which China established to discuss regional security, were echoed by Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. Fan suggested that such projects, ”are mainly carried out for civil purposes,” and that they “will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, went even further, arguing that: “There is no militarization of the islands [in the South China Sea]. Judging from the current situation, China does not build military facilities on the islands. Nor have we converted them for military use.”

But international observers have criticized China for constructing “combat-capable” runways on some of the islands. Last month, satellite images showed that China appears to be working on a second military-grade runway in the Spratly Islands. It recently also extended an existing runway in the disputed Paracel Islands.

This is not the first time China has denied any military ambitions (paywall) in the South China Sea, but claiming that its construction projects are there for its neighbors’ benefit demonstrates just how at odds China’s viewpoint is with the international community.

China also likely knows that it may not have to militarize the islands in order for its construction projects to pay off. That’s because every time a foreign ship passes China’s new lighthouses they may be obliged to use and log them. Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, told Reuters that such actions alone could “be taken as de facto recognition of China’s sovereignty.”