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Island building in disputed sea? China doesn’t want to talk about it

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is surrounded by journalists at the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is surrounded by journalists at the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

(Joshua Paul / Associated Press)

Southeast Asian countries meeting in Malaysia want China to stop claiming territory and building artificial islands in the South China Sea. China’s position? Don’t even talk about it.

“Hyping up the South China Sea issue will undermine the generally stable situation in the region,” said commentary published Tuesday by the official New China News Agency. In what was apparently a jab aimed at the United States, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China does not “welcome nonregional countries to make improper remarks” on talks to head off maritime conflict, the agency reported.

Territorial disputes are threatening to disrupt negotiations at the meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The meeting, which began Tuesday, drew foreign ministers and other representatives from 10 Southeast Asian countries for four days of talks. The U.S. and China were among other countries invited.

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China claims as its sovereign territory nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, a 1.4-million square-mile, potentially resource-rich swath of the western Pacific Ocean dotted with remote islands, reefs and shoals. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the sea.

China has expressed willingness to negotiate a “code of conduct” to avoid armed maritime conflicts over these competing claims. Yet the country’s aggressive moves to assert its own claims in recent years — including artificial island-building that experts have called unprecedented in scale — have created an air of distrust in regional dialogues, threatening to undermine diplomatic progress.

China maintains that nearly all of the South China Sea has been its territory “since ancient times,” and considers its island-building a sovereign right. It has urged Washington not to take sides on the issue.

State Department Deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Monday that discussions over the South China Sea “need to be brought up and discussed” at the meeting, which Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to attend. Several representatives of ASEAN nations have backed the demand.

“We are calling for the termination of such activities, which are of concern to us, and eroding trust and confidence among the parties, and complicating the very process of negotiating” the code of conduct, Le Luong Minh, ASEAN’s secretary-general, told the Associated Press. “In the face of the situation, it is even more urgent for ASEAN and China” to agree to the code of conduct.

China announced in June that it would soon finish building the islands, a process which involves dredging sand from the sea floor and using it to build up land mass. Much of China’s reclaimed land is in the Spratly Islands, a disputed group of islands, islets, reefs and atolls near the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Vietnam.

Satellite images show that China has begun building piers, helipads and airstrips on the islands, which could significantly bolster its military and surveillance capabilities in the area.

Follow @JRKaiman on Twitter for news from Asia

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