BEIJING — China said Friday it only seeks peace in the South China Sea, rejecting comments by President Barack Obama that Beijing is using its muscle to intimidate neighbors in a region where U.S. officials say China also is aggressively creating artificial land to bolster its position.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China advocated talks to resolve tensions between rival claimants to the strategic waters and island groups that sit astride some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potentially huge mineral reserves.
“I think you will agree with me that China has been a robust force for the preservation and promotion of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Hua said.
Obama said Thursday that the U.S. is concerned that China is not abiding by international norms and is using its “sheer size and muscle” to bully smaller claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
“We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside,” Obama told reporters while on a visit to Jamaica. Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim all or parts of the South China Sea.
In an apparent reference to the U.S., Hua said: “I think everybody can clearly see who has the biggest size and muscle in the world.” She added that, “We hope the U.S. can … genuinely play a positive, constructive and responsible role in promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea and the region.”
The U.S. has increasingly expressed concern about continuing Chinese construction that artificially adds land to the reefs and islands it controls in the region, projects documented by aerial photos and eyewitness accounts. U.S. military officials have said they could be aimed at hosting military facilities as part of an “aggressive” effort to exert sovereignty there.
Hua said Thursday that such work was mainly for peaceful civilian purposes such as aiding fishermen, but also served to “meet necessary demands” for defense. She also reiterated China’s stance that its sovereignty over the area gives it the right to carry out whatever work it deems worthy, but that such activities are not directed at any third parties.
China says it wants a code of conduct between the parties to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea, but says the U.S. and other countries without direct claims in the region should stay on the sidelines.
While the U.S. says it takes no position on sovereignty issues, its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines could draw it into a confrontation with China in the event of a military crisis.
Washington also strongly insists on freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and the presence of the U.S. Navy in the area is a source of constant frustration for Beijing.
On a visit to Tokyo Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. advocated that “no changes in the status quo are made coercively and that territorial disputes, which are long-standing, are not militarized.”