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US says China 'can't manufacture sovereignty'

United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel speaks to reporters in Washington in January 2015. On Wednesday, May 14, 2015 Russel testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on maritime issues in East Asia.  AP/Ahn Young-joon

MANILA, Philippines — The United States' top policy maker for Asia-Pacific believes China cannot alter its legal merits in claims on the South China Sea by constructing islands and buildings on features claimed by the Philippines.

In a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel noted that China's reclaimed area is more expansive than the "largest naturally formed island in the Spratly Islands."

China, moreover, is building facilities on the new outposts, including at least one air strip on Fiery Cross reef, which Russel said is possibly "the longest air strip in the Spratlys and capable of accommodating military aircraft."

"Under international law it is clear that no amount of dredging or construction will alter or enhance the legal strength of a nation's territorial claims," Russel said. "No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can't manufacture sovereignty."

Russel also addressed China's argument that it was not the first claimant to build on contested South China Sea areas.

He said that while Beijing had a point in saying that others have reclaimed land and conducted military activities in the waters before it did, China's reclamation "vastly outstrips that of any other claimant."

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"In little more than a year, China has dredged and now occupies nearly four times the total area of the other five claimants combined," he said.

"Given its military might, China also has the capability to project power from its outposts in a way that other claimants do not," Russel added.

The diplomat also cited Manila's statement that China's behavior, particularly dredging of sea beds, has harmed ecosystems and coral reefs to support.

He also argued that while China has offered its rationale for the reclamation activities, its statements are contradictory.

"Beijing has offered multiple and sometimes contradictory explanations as to the purpose of expanding these outposts and constructing facilities, including enhancing its ability to provide disaster relief, environmental protection, search and rescue activities, meteorological and other scientific research, as well as other types of assistance to international users of the seas," Russel said.

Earlier this week, China expressed grave concern over reported plans of the US to deploy military vessels and aircraft near its reclaimed islands in the strategic waterway.

Its Defense Ministry, moreover, opposed the Pentagon's annual report on the growing Asian military, which accused Beijing of lacking transparency on defense policies and purposes.

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