China fires back at South China Sea claimants with reclamation accusations

BEIJING (Reuters) - After facing weeks of criticism about its reclamation work on disputed islands in the South China Sea, China on Wednesday turned the tables on Vietnam, the Philippines and others by accusing them of carrying out their own illegal building work. China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, with overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the Spratly Islands and may be planning another. Those moves, along with other reclamations, have caused alarm around the region and in Washington too, with the issue dominating a summit of Southeast Asian leaders this week, to China's displeasure. At a daily news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei listed reclamation work being done by other claimant nations in the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha Islands. "For a long time, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have been carrying out reclamations on the Chinese islands they are illegally occupying in the Nansha Islands, building airports and other fixed infrastructure, even deploying missiles and other military equipment," he said. On Thitu Island, the Philippines is building an airport and expanding a wharf, and on Nanshan Island, Flat Island and others they are building "so-called tourism facilities", Hong added. In Manila, a senior armed forces official denied the Philippines was undertaking any reclamation work. "Prove it," said the official, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "We are not making any improvements because we want to preserve the moral high ground in the arbitration case we filed before the United Nations." Hong said Vietnam was building docks, runways, missile positions, office buildings, barracks, hotels, lighthouses and helicopter pads on more than 20 islands and shoals, including Prince Consort Bank and Orleana Shoal. "China is resolutely opposed to these illegal activities and demands the relevant countries immediately stop their infringements on China's sovereignty and rights," Hong added. U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday accused China of "flexing its muscles" to advance its maritime claims against Asian neighbors. Hong urged the United States to keep its promises not to take sides in territorial disputes or "send the wrong signals". Disputes over how to tackle an increasingly assertive stance by China - an ally of several ASEAN states - in the strategic South China Sea make the issue Southeast Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)