BEIJING—China on Friday defended its construction on disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea as “normal, “ after a US think tank released new satellite images showing deployment of radar and other equipment.
This developed as senior defense and military officials from China and the Philippines agreed to peacefully settle disputes, specifically in the contested waterway, through lawful, non-coercive and transparent means—an issue raised during bilateral defense cooperation meetings in Camp Aguinaldo on Friday.
These talks came amid fresh aerial sightings revealing China’s continued fortification of its man-made islands in several areas in the West Philippine Sea, including the installation of high-tech electronic communications for military use.
Beijing claims nearly all of the disputed sea and has been turning reefs in the Spratly and Paracel chains into islands, installing military facilities and equipment on them.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said China’s buildup continued this year despite rival claims across the sea from, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Responding to the report, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “If China is conducting any peaceful construction activity or deploying necessary defense facilities, it’s very normal because it’s within our sovereignty.”
“We believe that some individuals are making a fuss about this. They’re trying to hype it up,” Lu told a regular news briefing.
The discussion at Camp Aguinaldo focused on resolving disputes in the WPS through the adoption of the Framework for the Code of Conduct to avoid possible severe irritants on both sides.
The meetings also formed part for the resumption of the Annual Defense Security Talks between Manila and Beijing, with Undersecretary for Defense Policy Ricardo A. David Jr. as head of Philippine delegation and China’s Rear Admiral Jiang Guoping, Assistant Chief of General Staff, Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, and other senior officials.
The ADST is the bilateral dialogue mechanism between the Philippines and China, established under the 2004 Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation.
Since 2005, four ADSTs have been alternately hosted by the two countries, with the last one held in Beijing in 2013.
This year’s ADST provided both sides the opportunity to exchange views on the current regional security situation, and flesh out concrete plans to cooperate in addressing security concerns mutually faced by both countries, the Department of National Defense said in a statement.
However, over the course of 2017, China has been advancing the next phase of development with construction of infrastructure to support air and naval bases, such as underground storage areas and “large radar and sensor arrays,” the Washington-based think tank said in a report on Thursday.
Fiery Cross Reef saw the most construction this past year, with building work spanning 27 acres, or about 110,000 square meters, AMTI said its analysis of satellite images showed.
There is now a high frequency radar array at the northern end of the island, it added.
Meanwhile, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday that China’s southern island province of Hainan has revealed a satellite launch plan to “assist remote sensing coverage” over the South China Sea.
The mission will start in 2019 with the launch of three optical satellites, Xinhua cited the Sanyan Institute of Remote Sensing as saying.
The report follows recent moves by China to ease concerns among rival claimants around the sea, through which some $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes.
Vietnam and China agreed last month during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi to avoid conflicts in the hotly contested waters.
At a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in November, China and Asean countries agreed to begin talks on a much-delayed code of conduct for the sea.
The Philippines had for many years stood alongside Vietnam as one of the region’s strongest opponents to Chinese expansionism.
Following Manila’s complaint to a United Nations-backed tribunal, the panel ruled last year that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis.
But the Philippines, after President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year, decided not to use the ruling to pressure China.
He instead chose to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid.