BEIJING — China is set to finish part of its controversial building program on the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, the foreign ministry said in a surprise announcement on Tuesday.
“The land reclamation project on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands will be completed in the upcoming days,” China’s new Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement on the ministry’s website, using the Chinese name for the Spratly islands.
China's claim of most of the South China Sea — a strategic maritime lane with rich fishing grounds and potentially huge oil deposits — has pitted it against Taiwan and some Southeast Asian neighbors with competing claims, some of which are friends or allies of the United States.
Tuesday's statement repeated claims that the new islands would help with environmental protection, maritime research and disaster relief, in addition to having a military purpose.
While the U.S. has declared neutrality on the territorial disputes, it has vowed to protect "freedom of navigation" and expressed concern over about Beijing's rapid reclamation effort around several reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
Just over two weeks ago, the U.S. stepped up its criticism of China's reclamation work.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders and experts on May 31 that Beijing's push in the South China Sea was out of step with international rules and that the U.S. opposed “any further militarization” of the disputed island.
Despite complaints from the U.S. and others, Beijing is unlikely to change course, according to Edward Schwarck, Asia fellow at British defense think tank RUSI.
"China has demonstrated its resolve that regardless of what the United States does it will not cease with these activities," he said. At the same time, Tuesday's announcement may also be an attempt to be more open about its actions in the area.
"You could see this as a demonstration of resolve," Schwarck said. "But it could also be an attempt at transparency."