BEIJING - After facing weeks of criticism about its reclamation work on disputed islands in the South China Sea, China has turned the tables on Vietnam, the Philippines and others by accusing them of carrying out their own illegal building work.
China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, but there are overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Recent satellite images show that China has made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the Spratly islands, and it may be planning another.
The Diplomat current affairs website reported last Saturday that, within 10 weeks, China has built an island on Subi Reef, with enough space to fit a 3,300m-long runway, similar to one that is being paved at Fiery Cross Reef. The latest satellite images are dated April 17.
Those moves, along with other reclamation works, have caused alarm around the region and in Washington too, with the issue dominating a summit of South-east Asian leaders this week, to China's displeasure.
At a daily news briefing yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei listed reclamation work that is being done by other claimant nations in the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha islands. "For a long time, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have been carrying out reclamations on the Chinese islands they are illegally occupying in the Nansha islands, building airports and other fixed infrastructure, even deploying missiles and other military equipment," he said.
On Thitu Island, the Philippines is building an airport and expanding a wharf, and on Nanshan Island, Flat Island and others, "so-called tourism facilities" are being constructed, added Mr Hong.
Vietnam is also building docks, runways, missile positions, office buildings, barracks, hotels, lighthouses and helicopter pads on more than 20 islands and shoals, including Prince Consort Bank and Orleana Shoal, he said. "China is resolutely opposed to these illegal activities and demands that the relevant countries immediately stop their infringements on China's sovereignty and rights," Mr Hong added. "China's construction in the Nansha Islands is totally within the scope of our sovereignty; it is reasonable, fair and lawful."
United States President Barack Obama yesterday accused China of "flexing its muscles" to advance its maritime claims against its Asian neighbours, including over a dispute with Japan on uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
Mr Hong urged the US to abide by its promise not to take sides in territorial disputes or "send the wrong signals".
Disputes over how to tackle an increasingly assertive stance taken by China - an ally of several Asean states - in the strategic waters of the South China Sea make the issue South-east Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.