China has started to operate two lighthouses on a reef on a disputed island chain in the South China Sea, a state news agency reported, amid rising concerns among the U.S. and China’s neighbors about Beijing’s maritime intentions.
The Ministry of Transport held a completion ceremony Friday for the 164-foot-high Huayang and Chigua lighthouses on Huayang Reef in the Spratly Islands, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The Spratlys, mostly barren islands, reefs and atolls that are believed to be atop oil and natural gas deposits, straddle one of the world's busiest sea lanes. They are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
Tensions have been brewing between Washington and Beijing about China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea. The U.S. and the Philippines have expressed concerns over China’s land reclamation projects around reefs and atolls, saying they could be used to base military planes and navy ships to intimidate other claimants and threaten freedom of navigation, and have called for a freeze on such activity.
China has bristled at what it sees as U.S. interference in the region and says it is within its sovereign rights in developing islands made from sand piled on top of reefs and atolls.
Reuters reports China said it wouldn’t stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of navigational freedom, as the U.S. considers sending a Navy vessel within its 12-nautical-mile zones around the chain.
The U.S. has mulled sending a ship to the artificial islands, signaling it doesn’t recognize Beijing’s sovereignty over the islands China has built. The U.S. has asserted it will continue to operate wherever international law permits.
Xinhua said the lighthouses were meant to address a severe shortage in navigational aids, as well as shortages in maritime emergency and oil-spill response forces, that "has immensely hindered the navigational safety and economic and social development" in the South China Sea. It said China's transport ministry would continue to construct facilities to provide passing vessels and countries in the region with navigational services.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.