China Official Says Island-Building Has Stopped in Disputed Seas, US Officials are Skeptical

(Wall Street Journal) KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—China’s foreign minister said at a Southeast Asian summit that it had halted land-reclamation efforts in the disputed South China Sea in an attempt to smooth tensions with its territorial rivals. But the statement was greeted with skepticism by U.S. officials.

While Beijing previously said it would halt its island-building projects, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters on Wednesday that the controversial activities had stopped. But U.S. officials questioned whether China had really halted its land-reclamation drive.

Mr. Wang apparently was trying to reassure neighboring countries about China’s intentions during meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week in Malaysia, involving the 10 Asean members and other Asia-Pacific countries, including China and the U.S.

Billing China as the region’s indispensable partner, Mr. Wang told Asean that China has the money, technology and know-how to help the countries develop their infrastructure and grow their economies.

China’s construction of artificial islands in at least seven locations in the disputed Spratly Islands during the past year damaged China’s image in parts of Southeast Asia, particularly upsetting rival South China Sea claimants Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China claims almost all of the South China Sea and says it has the right to build there.

China’s decision to forge ahead with the artificial islands, despite its neighbors concerns, has unsettled several countries. On Tuesday, Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said China’s expansionism in the South China Sea was “dangerous” and eroded the trust between China and Asean. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Asean countries should work together to address China’s territorial challenge. The Philippines and Vietnam have both repeatedly protested Beijing’s island-building program.

Mr. Wang offered a new 10-point plan to boost China-Asean relations, which he said would overtake any territorial frictions. In doing so, he presented China as a force for good in Southeast Asia. “China has no intention of competing with other countries” when it comes to working with Southeast Asia to spur development, he said.

China has accused the U.S. of sowing dissent in the region by talking up the issue of the South China Sea disputes and encouraging regional allies like the Philippines to stand up to Beijing. China is also wary of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade group from which China is currently excluded.

U.S. officials played down the foreign minister’s comments about halting land reclamation, saying Washington is skeptical that the work had stopped. Even if there has been a pause in construction, U.S. officials said it would be difficult to determine whether the stoppage was permanent or temporary.

Earlier Wednesday Mr. Wang met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had called for a freeze on China’s reclamation activities in the run-up to the talks in the Malaysian capital.

Mr. Kerry “encouraged China … to halt problematic actions,” according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions. “Secretary Kerry reiterated his concern about rising tensions over disputed claims in the South China Sea and China’s large scale reclamation, construction and militarization of features there,” the official said.

Satellite images reveal that China has been building a large airstrip on one of these man-made features, raising concerns that Beijing may attempt to enforce an air-defense identification zone in the South China Sea. The U.S. has made it clear that it will oppose any attempt to limit freedom of navigation in the disputed sea, through which around $5 trillion in maritime trade passes annually.

The State Department official also said Mr. Kerry had discussed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. next month—a possible factor in China’s attempts to ratchet down regional tensions at the Asean talks.

Mr. Wang said the opportunities of China-Asean cooperation far outweighed any tensions, noting that Southeast Asian countries had responded positively to recent Chinese development initiatives, such as Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and its Maritime Silk Road project designed to boost regional commerce.

Mr. Wang’s conciliatory message was welcomed in some quarters. Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Tanasak Patimapragorn, chairman of the Asean-China ministerial meeting that took place Wednesday, praised China’s willingness to work with Asean countries, and said that a “new phase of consultations” would soon deliver a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea. Thailand isn’t involved in any territorial dispute with China.