(Reuters) China has shown “great restraint” in the South China Sea by not seizing islands occupied by other countries even though it could have, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Tuesday ahead of two regional summits where the disputed waterway is likely to be a hot topic.
Beijing has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Reclamation work and the building of three airfields and other facilities on some of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago have alarmed the region and raised concern in Washington that China is extending its military reach deep into maritime Southeast Asia.
But China was the real victim as it had “dozens” of its islands and reefs in the Spratlys illegally occupied by three of the claimants, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told a news conference in Beijing.
He did not name the countries, but all claimants except Brunei have military fortifications in the Spratlys.
“The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries,” Liu said.
“But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Tensions over the South China Sea are likely to dominate the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur later this week.