China can build whatever it wants on its islands in the South China Sea, a senior Chinese official said on Monday, rejecting proposals ahead of a key regional meeting to freeze any activity that may raise tensions in disputed waters there.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers this week hold security talks with counterparts, including those from the United States and China, in Myanmar, with escalating tensions over maritime disputes in Asia likely to be a major issue.
The Philippines will propose a freeze on all activity that raises tension in disputed waters in the South China Sea as part of a three-part plan at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, Manila's foreign minister said last week.
The United States, a close ally and former colonial power in the Philippines, has also called on all parties to halt activity in the disputed sea to ease tension.
Manila has accused China of carrying out reclamation work on at least three shoals in the Spratly Islands, where most of the overlapping claims lie, especially between China and the Philippines.
Yi Xianliang, deputy head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Boundary and Ocean Affairs Departments, told reporters that China had every right to build on its islands as a way of improving basic living conditions there.
"The Spratly Islands are China's intrinsic territory, and what China does or doesn't do is up to the Chinese government. Nobody can change the government's position," Yi said.
It was a double standard to bring this issue up now when other countries had been doing similar things for years, he added.
"Why is it that when other countries wantonly build airports, nobody says a word? But China has only this year started small and necessary construction, to raise living conditions on the islands - and so many people raise doubts."
Hong Kong media have reported that China is planning to build an air base on Fiery Cross Reef, though Yi said he was unaware of any such plans.
Yi said that proposals for a "freeze" on tension-raising activities were not helpful, and could be seen as an effort to undermine drawn-out efforts by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a code of conduct in the South China Sea by acting as a replacement for the code.
If the United States had come up with such a proposal then he had not seen it, Yi said, adding that in any case the South China Sea was an issue for those countries directly involved.
"Trust in us Asian people to use Asian means and wisdom to resolve our own problems," he said.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishery resources. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the sea, where about $5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes every year.
China's placing of an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam around the Paracel Islands in May added to regional concerns about China's intentions. However, China removed the rig last month.
By Ben Blanchard