KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Nov. 23 (UPI) -- The United States and China collided again over Beijing's land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, as Japanese officials are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to China's sovereignty claims in the high-traffic waterway.
Speaking prior to a gathering of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama had called for a stop to the "reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas," the Financial Times reported.
In late October, the U.S. Navy had dispatched the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Lassen to sail within 12 nautical miles of the disputed reefs – waters where China has claimed maritime sovereignty. China also lays claim to most of the South China Sea, which has prompted Washington to conduct several "freedom of navigation" operations.
China has pushed back on U.S. objections and said that while it is building "military installations," the facilities are to protect civilians.
Liu Zhenmin, China's vice foreign minister, told reporters during an ASEAN press conference that other countries shouldn't confuse the maintenance of military facilities with efforts to militarize.
But regional rival Japan has joined the chorus of opposition to Beijing's activities. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe broached the topic of the South China Sea and said "unilateral acts" had heightened tensions in the disputed maritime region. Japanese officials, however, did not clarify whether they would support the U.S. Navy by dispatching its self-defense forces, or military troops.
More criticism came from Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani on Monday, who said China's criticism of U.S. "provocations" was unjustified, NHK reported. Speaking to reporters in Hawaii, Nakatani said the South China Sea dispute is an important international issue and no country can remain a bystander.
The defense minister added Japan had intercepted three Chinese patrol boats on Monday morning in the East China Sea, and that Japan would respond firmly to Chinese violations to Japan's sovereign claims to the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands.