China is not militarizing the South China Sea, Premier Li Keqiang
said on Friday, although he acknowledged that defense equipment
on islands in the disputed waterway had been placed there to
maintain “freedom of navigation”.
China has drawn international criticism for large-scale building
in the South China Sea, although Li told reporters in Australia
the development was for civilian purposes only.
“China’s facilities, Chinese islands and reefs, are primarily for
civilian purposes and, even if there is a certain amount of
defense equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the
freedom of navigation,” Li said.
China claims most of the resource-rich South China Sea, through
which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam
also have claims on the strategic waterway.
The United States estimates Beijing has added more than 3,200
acres (1,300 hectares) of land on seven features in the South
China Sea over the past three years, building runways, ports,
aircraft hangars and communications equipment.
The United States has conducted a series of freedom-of-navigation
operations in the South China Sea, raising tensions between
Washington and Beijing.