China came under mounting pressure on Wednesday over its land reclamation in the South China Sea, with both the United States and Japan criticising it for militarising the disputed waters.
US Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue during a meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of a regional diplomatic gathering in Malaysia that has been dominated by tensions over the Chinese moves.
"Secretary Kerry reiterated his concern about rising tensions over disputed claims in the South China Sea and China's large-scale reclamation, construction and militarisation of features there," a senior State Department official told reporters. "He encouraged China, along with the other claimants, to halt problematic actions in order to create space for diplomacy."
China has sparked alarm by expanding tiny reefs in the flashpoint sea and constructing military posts on some of them to try to shore up its territorial claims. The United States and Southeast Asian nations have called for a halt to such activities.
China has so far refused, but on Wednesday Wang said land reclamation had "already stopped". "China has already stopped. You look, who is building? Take a plane and look for yourself," he told reporters.
A Southeast Asian diplomatic source, however, said Wang told his counterparts in the region at a high-level security forum that Beijing would press on with plans for construction on the newly created islands.
State Minister Minoru Kiuchi, Japan's envoy to the talks, told delegates to the forum on Wednesday he had "deep concern over... large-scale land reclamation, the construction of outposts and their use for military purposes", according to a Japanese government statement.
Tokyo is locked in a confrontation of its own with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose countered that Beijing had only stopped reclamation because they were "moving on to phase two, which is construction of facilities on the reclaimed features".
The annual gathering is hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and includes the US, China, Japan, Russia and other countries. It continues until Thursday.
Kerry meets Lavrov
Beijing claims control over nearly the entire South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold rich oil and gas reserves. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - all ASEAN members - also have various claims as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.
China's neighbours have increasingly chafed at what are seen as mounting violations by Beijing of a regional pledge not to take actions that could stoke conflict.
Before their meeting, Kerry had said he and Wang would also discuss a range of bilateral issues including plans for a September US visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and China's "great cooperation" on the recent Iran nuclear deal. Washington's top diplomat also met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
A US official said the pair talked about Ukraine and the conflict in Syria, including "the importance of finding a political solution and the need to continue to address the Assad regime's possession and potential use of chemical weapons".
The two last met in Doha on Monday alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. After that meeting Lavrov hit out at an announcement by Washington that it was willing to take extra measures to defend US-allied fighters in Syria, describing the plan as "counterproductive".
Kerry, in a meeting Wednesday with ASEAN foreign ministers, said Washington shared their desire "to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea". He stressed the need to maintain the security of sea lanes and fishing grounds and to settle disputes peacefully.
A Washington-based think-tank said this week Beijing could be preparing to build a second airstrip on an artificial island. China is already building a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway on Fiery Cross reef, which could ultimately be used for combat operations, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.