UNITED States President Barack Obama has expressed concern that China is using its "sheer size and muscle" to push smaller countries around in the South China Sea. This comes as a US Navy report noted that China is rapidly building coast guard ships, whose number has increased 25 per cent in the last three years.
"Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions," Mr Obama said at a town hall event in Jamaica on Thursday ahead of a Caribbean summit in Panama.
"We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam is not as large as China doesn't mean that they can just be elbowed aside," he said.
Beijing issued a swift retort.
"I think everybody can clearly see who has the biggest size and muscle in the world," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, who added that, instead of fanning tensions, "the US can genuinely play a positive, constructive and responsible role in promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea".
A newly released series of detailed satellite images shows that China has transformed a partly submerged coral reef, named Mischief Reef, into an island in a matter of weeks since January.
The photographs, published by an initiative of the Washington- based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, seem to lend weight to claims by Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris that China is building a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea.
The US Navy report said China last year began construction on, launched or commissioned more than 60 vessels, and a similar number was planned for this year, The New York Times reported yesterday.
China has already built artificial islands in five reefs in the Spratly chain of islands - Gaven, Johnson South, Cuarteron, Hughes and Fiery Cross.
Dredging is ongoing at one more reef, Subi. In all, including Mischief Reef, the reclamations have created about 60ha of new land mass.
In a lengthy defence on Thursday, Ms Hua said that while the islands would indeed be used for defence, they would also provide civilian services for other nations.
China is building typhoon shelters, search-and-rescue centres, marine meteorological forecasting stations and civil administration offices, among others, she added.
"Such constructions are within China's sovereignty and are fair, reasonable, lawful and do not affect or target any country, and are beyond reproach."
China analyst Shannon Tiezzi, writing on The Diplomat site, said Beijing "has apparently decided to change its strategy".
"China has now officially admitted that its construction activities will be used for military purposes... but Beijing has also made its case for the islands playing a humanitarian function as well."
The Philippines is clearly not convinced. Defence Minister Voltaire Gazmin told reporters on Thursday that China's island bases are already walling in vital, resource-rich sea lanes and keeping other nations out.
Those bases will soon form a "wall" that will allow China to extensively mine resources in the area with impunity, he said.
Mr Jose Custodio, a defence consultant for the Philippine military, called Beijing's latest claim about the artificial islands a "lie".
"You don't need huge islands with airstrips if you only want to guarantee freedom of navigation," he said.
"What they are setting up is an effective blockade that is choking Philippine fishing in that part of the sea."