China has said in a statement released by its foreign ministry it would stop building additional islands, though it planned to complete existing land reclamation efforts.
The warnings from US defence secretary Ash Carter to cease land reclamation seem to have had some effect, although China said it would continue the construction it was carrying out in the disputed Spratly Islands, and would switch to building civilian facilities once it completes reclamation, CNN reported.
According to foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, the islands would host both military and civilian facilities. In the past, China had denied outright that the islands had anything to do with military installations. Instead, officials said functions like maritime search and rescue and environmental conservation were the main reason for the facilities.
They also emphasised that any military uses, if present at all, were secondary. Observers had observed the construction of a 10,000-foot runway and radar system.
''This is a step toward halting land reclamation, which the US has demanded, and at the same time, China can tell its people that it has accomplished what it wanted to do,'' Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese foreign policy, told The Wall Street Journal.
China's top planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said it had drawn up a plan for the use of civilian facilities on the Spratly Islands.
Facilities would also be provided for the supply of search and places to shelter fishing boats from storms and for repairs, the NDRC added. The agency, however, did not spell out what kind of harbours or docks would be built.
The NDRC further said facilities would be built to protect the environment, waste water and garbage handling facilities.
It, however, offered no time-frame for completion of the facilities and also did not name the specific islands they were being built on.
China has laid claims on most of the South China Sea, through which it sees $5-trillion worth of ship-borne trade pass though it every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei had overlapping claims on the islands.