BEIJING • China has moved to strengthen its presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) commissioning its newest and largest logistics vessel to ferry supplies to areas under its control and the foreign ministry announcing the building of new civilian facilities on them.
The People's Liberation Army Daily, the Chinese military's newspaper, reported on its website on Tuesday that the army's ground forces had commissioned its largest ship in Sansha, Hainan province. The 90m-long ship is a new-generation logistics support vessel, according to the paper.
Weighing 2,700 tonnes, it is reportedly the largest ship in the army's watercraft fleet and can ferry heavy-duty weapons and accommodate a helicopter.
It will be used to transport supplies, weapons and equipment to places in the South China Sea and to conduct search-and-rescue operations there, the newspaper said.
Mr Cao Weidong, a researcher at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, explained that the vessel was necessary for the army to transport supplies to soldiers who guard the islands.
"Compared with the navy's logistics support vessels, which mainly supply combat ships at sea, the army only uses such ships to transport materials to soldiers stationed on islands, so their ships are smaller and have fewer weapons," he said.
Chinese officials also insisted that China's actions in the area were benign, refuting claims that it is militarising the disputed waters. A foreign ministry official said on Tuesday that China will build new civilian facilities there, reported the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper.
"This is aimed at fulfilling China's international responsibility and offering better public goods and services for countries in the region," said spokesman Hong Lei at a routine press briefing in Beijing.
NO IMPEDIMENT TO NAVIGATION
The construction will not target any country nor impede navigation and overflight freedom enjoyed by other countries in accordance with international law.
CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN HONG LEI, on island defence facilities
He said China will build necessary defence facilities on some islands, emphasising that the construction will be moderate and has nothing to do with militarisation.
"The construction will not target any country nor impede navigation and overflight freedom enjoyed by other countries in accordance with international law," Mr Hong added.
China has built two lighthouses on South China Sea reefs, which ensure the safety of ships, and completed a land reclamation project on some of the Nansha Islands (or the Spratlys) in June, he said.
Bloomberg also reported Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin saying at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur after an Asean summit that it was necessary to maintain and build military facilities "as the islands and reefs are far from China's mainland".
"This is necessitated by China's national defence purpose and to protect those islands and reefs," he added, emphasising that "one should never link such military facilities with efforts to militarise the islands and reefs and militarise the South China Sea".
China, which claims almost the entire energy-rich South China Sea, has been transforming reefs into artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, and building airfields and other facilities on some of them.
That has prompted concerns in Washington and across the region that Beijing is trying to militarise its claims in the area. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have territorial claims in the South China Sea.