China turns on lighthouse atop reef

China has expanded its presence in the contested South China Sea by switching on a lighthouse atop a reconstructed reef also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, state media said.

The 55-meter-high (180-foot) facility on Subi Reef in the Spratly chain contains technology to monitor passing ships, the official Xinhua news agency reported late Tuesday.

China claims virtually all the South China Sea despite conflicting claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. It has constructed artificial islands in the area in recent months as it asserts its claims.

China has turned Subi Reef-known as Kagitingan Reef in the Philippines-into an artificial island in the past year, satellite photos have shown, reclaiming nearly 400 hectares of land.

The island-building has been condemned by neighbors and the United States, but Beijing insists it is aimed at helping with maritime search and rescue.

Chinese transport officials held a ceremony on Subi on Tuesday, Xinhua said. Pictures showed men in white shirts beside the towering structure next to a sign reading "Lights-on ceremony."

Washington regularly accuses Beijing-which says it has built runways and deployed unspecified weapons to the islands-of militarizing the area. Beijing denies the accusations and says US patrols have ramped up tensions.

Citing an obligation to uphold freedom of navigation, Washington last year sent the USS Lassen to sail past Subi Reef, a move which angered Beijing.

Xinhua reported last year that China would build two 50-meter-tall lighthouses on the Cuarteron and Johnson South reefs in the Spratly islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

The state-run China Daily newspaper reported in 2014 that Beijing would build five new lighthouses in the South China Sea's Paracels chain.

On Monday, US and Philippine troops began major exercises on Monday as China's state media warned "outsiders" against interfering in tense South China Sea territorial disputes.

The official Xinhua news agency gave the warning as Manila and Washington launched the 11-day Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises with a low-key opening ceremony in Manila.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is to fly to the Philippines next week to observe live-firing of artillery and visit US Navy ships taking part.

Some 5,000 US troops are taking part along with nearly 4,000 Philippine soldiers and 80 from Australia.

"The... exercises caps Manila's recent attempts to involve outsiders in [a] regional row," China's official news agency Xinhua said in a commentary.

It cited Japan, which sent a submarine on a visit to the Philippines last weekend, and Australia.

"However, a provocation so fear-mongering and untimely as such is likely to boomerang on the initiators," Xinhua added.

"A big country with vital interests in Asia, the United States should first clarify the targets of its Pivot to Asia strategy, which so far has featured no more than unscrupulous inconsistency between fear-mongering deeds and peace-loving words."

The US does not take sides in the territorial disputes but has asserted the importance of keeping sea and air routes open.

It has sent US bombers and warships on patrol close to the Chinese construction activity in recent months, infuriating Beijing.

Lieutenant-General John Toolan, commander of US Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, told reporters in Manila the exercises would help the allies improve maritime security and maintain regional stability.

"Our alliance is strong. The United States is committed to this relationship and these are not empty words.... peace in Southeast Asia depends on our cooperation," Toolan added.

The exercises come ahead of a decision this year by a United Nations-backed tribunal on a legal challenge by Manila to China's territorial claims.

The Philippines is also preparing to host US troops at five bases under a defense pact born out of US President Barack Obama's plan to reassert American influence in the Pacific.

Source: The Standard

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