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Tensions are rising again as China steps up its land reclamation and construction projects in disputed parts of the South China Sea. Such moves in areas where disputes over islands and reefs exist among China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries threaten to escalate into situations that are hard to control. Beijing should halt its destabilizing activities and instead make efforts to deepen trust with other countries in the region and build mutually beneficial relationships based on cooperation.

According to the U.S. State Department, China has so far reclaimed an estimated eight sq. km of land in the South China Sea. Since the reclaimed area was roughly two sq. km as of the end of last year, the total space increased fourfold in less than half a year. Knowledgeable sources say China is building a runway and a harbor on the Spratly Islands, which are claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan. Obviously China is seeking to achieve a fait accompli in its effective control of the islands.

In early April, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry B. Harris accused China of creating a “great wall of sand” and said that the “scope and pace of building man-made islands raise serious questions about Chinese intentions.” The U.S. State Department has urged China to make serious efforts to ease tension in the area, pointing out that China’s activities are causing tensions to rise.

China in the 1950s adopted a U-shaped “nine-dash line” that encircles a large area of the South China Sea and declared that the sea inside the line was its territorial waters. But the legal basis for the claim under international law is unfounded. Apparently China is seeking to reinforce its claims in the area by resorting to land reclamation. Its activities run counter not only to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to in 2002, but also to accepted international norms. ASEAN is trying to work out a legally binding rule of conduct for the South China Sea together with Beijing to govern the behavior of both China and the group’s member countries. China should work with ASEAN to ensure that the accord, which should improve regional stability, can be signed in a timely manner.

In mid-April, the foreign ministers from the Group of Seven powers said in their declaration, “We call on all states to pursue the peaceful management or settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law, including through internationally recognized legal dispute settlement mechanisms.” This was followed by a statement by ASEAN leaders late last month, in which they said, “We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea.” Although they did not mention China by name, they said the act “has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”

China’s behavior in the South China Sea appears to be designed to weaken the influence of the United States and Japan in the region’s matters. The sea constitutes an important part of China’s New Silk Road initiative of creating a large economic zone that includes Central Asia, China and Southeast and South Asia. But Beijing should realize that its activities in the area are causing other countries in the region to view China with suspicion and to strengthen their ties with Japan and the U.S. Beijing should exercise self-restraint to help dispel concerns held by the international community over its perceived attempts to secure its interests in the South China Sea at the expense of other states in the region.