China announced Wednesday it has halted land reclamation work in the South China Sea. But other Asian countries say China is simply moving to a new level in the territorial dispute: setting up buildings on the disputed islands.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the announcement during a visit to Malaysia. He is there for meetings of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He called on China's neighbors to speed up talks on how countries with territorial claims to the South China Sea should act there. About $5 billion in trade passes through the disputed waters each year.
Chinese officials said in June China would soon complete some of its reclamation work on the Spratly Islands. The officials said that China would continue to develop the man-made islands. And, officials also said the islands would have undefined military purposes. They said the islands would be equipped to help with search-and-rescue operations at sea, disaster assistance and navigation.
The United States and Japan have expressed concern about Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. The two countries suspect the development work is aimed at extending China's military reach.
Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Wang and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. During those talks, Secretary Kerry expressed concerns over China's island-building efforts in the South China Sea.
A State Department official said Mr. Kerry restated U.S. concerns about rising tensions over territorial claims to the sea. He also voiced concerns about China's efforts to develop, set up buildings and prepare the area for military uses.
Secretary Kerry spoke at the opening of the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting. He said, "The United States shares the frequently expressed desire of ASEAN members to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea."
China's foreign ministry reported that Mr. Wang told Mr. Kerry, "China is always committed to working with the countries concerned to resolve disputes through peaceful negotiation."
When asked by a reporter whether China would temporarily halt its reclamation work in the South China Sea, Mr. Wang said, "China has already stopped. You just take an airplane to take a look."
However, a Philippine foreign ministry spokesman said China had stopped the reclamation work because it had already formed its new islands in the South China Sea.
Spokesman Charles Jose added, "At the same time, China announced they are moving on to Phase 2, which is construction of facilities on the reclaimed features. The Philippines views these activities as destabilizing."
Minoru Kiuchi, Japan's top vice foreign minister, said in a statement that he "voiced deep concern over unilateral actions that...heighten tensions in the South China Sea, including large-scale land reclamation, the construction of outposts, and their use for military purposes."
Recent satellite images show China has almost finished building a 3,000-meter-long airstrip on one of its seven new islands in the Spratlys.
Beijing claims most of the waters. But the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have territorial claims.
I'm Caty Weaver.