The Obama administration has repeatedly criticized Beijing’s land reclamation efforts in the region, calling them a breach of international law. But on Tuesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin reiterated Beijing’s claim to the Spratly archipelago.
He also added that Beijing has shown "great restraint" in allowing other countries to illegally occupy its territorial reefs in the region.
"The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries," Liu said during a news conference, according to Reuters.
"But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea."
While Liu did not mention countries by name, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan all have military installations in the Spratlys.
A hotly contested region through which nearly $5 trillion in trade passes annually, China lays claims to most of the region, though there are rival claimants. The United States has accused Beijing of attempting to establish an air defense zone over the waterway, citing the construction of a military-grade runway on Fiery Cross Reef.
Liu reiterated claims that Spratly installations will be used primarily for humanitarian purposes.
"Actually, the larger they are, the more civilian benefits they will bring," he said, in reference to the airstrips. He also cited the lack of coordination in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 as one example for the need of more advanced facilities.
Liu’s comments come ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to be held in Manila later this week. It is to be attended by both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama, and South China Sea tensions are expected to be a major topic, though Liu said he hoped that the discussions would remain focused on economic partnerships.
"Hyping the South China Sea issue is not conducive to cooperation," he said.
While accusing Beijing of aggressive action, the Pentagon has sent warships within the 12-mile territorial limits of China’s Spratly islands. Meant to demonstrate America’s refusal to recognize Beijing’s claims, Chinese officials have called the patrols an unnecessary escalation and urged for calm.
The United States has no territorial claims in the region.