BEIJING • China has begun operating a lighthouse on one of its artificial islands in the South China Sea, near where an American warship sailed last year to challenge Beijing's territorial claims.
China claims most of the energy- rich waters of the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. But neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
The Chinese Transport Ministry held a "completion ceremony", marking the start of operations of the 55m-high lighthouse on Subi Reef, where construction began last October, the official Xinhua news agency said late on Tuesday.
Pictures showed men in white shirts beside the towering structure, next to a sign reading "lights-on ceremony".
The US guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in October last year, drawing an angry rebuke from China, which called it "extremely irresponsible".
Subi Reef, which the Chinese refer to as Zhubi Reef, is an artificial island in the Spratlys built by China on dredged-up sand over the past year or so. China has lighthouse projects on two other reefs in the area - Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef.
Before China turned Subi into an island, it was submerged at high tide. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12 nautical mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
China says much of its construction in the South China Sea is designed to fulfil its international obligations in terms of maritime safety, search and rescue, and scientific research.
Asked about the lighthouse, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China was dedicated to providing public services in the South China Sea to ensure safety and freedom of navigation, which would be helpful for commercial users of the waters.
According to Xinhua, the lighthouse, which emits a white light at night, "can provide efficient navigation services such as positioning reference, route guidance and navigation safety information to ships, which can improve navigation management and emergency response".
The opening of the lighthouse came amid reports that one of Japan's largest destroyers, the Ise, may call at Subic port in the Philippines this month. Some see the move as Japan sending a message to China.
The first Japanese submarine to visit the Philippines in 15 years and two guided-missile destroyers made a port call at Subic on Sunday, the eve of the annual Balikatan military exercises between the United States and the Philippines.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE