KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Wednesday that Beijing had halted land reclamation in the South China Sea, and called on countries in the region to speed up talks on how claimant states should conduct themselves in the disputed waters.
In June, China said it would soon complete some of its reclamation in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, while adding it would continue to build facilities on the man-made islands.
Wang’s remarks at a regional meeting in Kuala Lumpur appeared designed to defuse tensions with other countries that lay claim to parts of the sea, through which $5 trillion (£3.2 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Beijing claims most of the waters, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
The United States and Japan have expressed alarm at China’s expansion in the South China Sea, which they suspect is aimed at extending its military reach, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with Wang in the Malaysian capital.
“China is always committed to working with the countries concerned to resolve disputes through peaceful negotiation,” Wang told Kerry, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.
“Countries that are not in the region should respect the efforts made by China and ASEAN countries.”
Wang made his remarks on the sidelines of meetings involving the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where tensions over the South China Sea have dominated talks this week.
When asked by a reporter whether China would temporarily halt reclamation work in the strategic waterway, he replied: “China has already stopped. You just take an aeroplane to take a look.”
Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose said China had stopped reclamation because it had already formed its new islands.
“At the same time, China announced they are moving on to Phase 2, which is construction of facilities on the reclaimed features. The Philippines views these activities as destabilising,” Jose said.
In a statement, Japan’s senior vice foreign minister Minoru Kiuchi “voiced deep concern over unilateral actions that change the status quo and heighten tensions in the South China Sea, including large-scale land reclamation, the construction of outposts and their use for military purposes”.
China says the outposts will have undefined military purposes, as well as help with maritime search and rescue, disaster relief and navigation.
Wang told reporters that China and ASEAN countries shared a desire to advance the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and resolve issues through dialogue.
They also wanted to strengthen cooperation in security and defence and maintain peace and stability in the area, he added.
Kerry had earlier expressed concern about China’s land reclamation and construction on the man-made islands during talks with Wang, a senior State Department official said.
The official said Kerry told Wang that while Washington did not take a position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, it wanted to see them resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.
Kerry also reiterated U.S. worries over the “militarization” of features on the Chinese-held islands in the Spratlys, the official added.
“He encouraged China, along with the other claimants, to halt problematic actions in order to create space for diplomacy,” the official said.
Recent satellite images show China has almost finished building a 3,000-metre-long (10,000-foot) airstrip on one of its seven new islands in the Spratlys.
The airstrip will be long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft, security experts have said, giving Beijing greater reach into the heart of maritime Southeast Asia.
China had said it did not want the South China Sea dispute raised at this week’s ASEAN meetings, but some ministers, including from host Malaysia, rebuffed that call, saying the issue was too important to ignore.
China and Southeast Asian nations had agreed to set up a foreign ministers’ hotline to tackle emergencies in the waterway, a senior ASEAN official said on Friday.
The senior State Department official said Kerry and Wang also discussed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September, as well as U.S. concerns over cybersecurity and human rights in China.
“They agreed there are many shared challenges that both countries should work closer together to address, such as climate change and development, and that more dialogue and cooperation between the United States and China remains vital,” the official said.
Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Angie Teo; Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Mike Collett-White