China says island-building ecologically benign

BEIJING - China's construction on disputed reefs in the South China Sea will not destroy ocean ecology, the country's maritime regulator said, in the face of complaints from the Philippines that the work is damaging coral in the area.

Beijing's rapid reclamation around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago has alarmed other claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam and prompted growing criticism from the U.S. government.

Manila in April said China's construction had destroyed about 300 acres (1.2 sq km) of coral reef and caused estimated annual losses of US$100 million (S$133.73 million) to coastal nations. "The Nansha expansion project highly emphasises environmental protection," China's State Oceanic Administration said in a statement on its website late on Thursday, which was covered widely in Chinese media on Friday.

China refers to the Spratlys as the Nansha islands.

Numerous protection measures, including the use of a "new type" of dredging technique, had been implemented during planning and construction and had achieved good results, the administration said. "Impact on coral reef ecology is localised, temporary, controllable and restorable," it said. 

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.

China stepped up its creation of artificial islands last year, and there have been recent tensions between the Chinese navy and the U.S. military around the Spratlys.

Beijing said this week that some of its island construction work would be completed soon, but that it would continue to build facilities which it says will help with maritime search and rescue, disaster relief and environmental protection.

Washington has repeatedly asked China to halt its island building, fearing that a militarisation of the territorial disputes could threaten regional stability.