China has finished some of its controversial land reclamation operations in the South China Sea, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday, which will likely draw further alarm from its neighbors in the region and its Asian rival Japan. China, which increased its creation of artificial land in the Spratly Island chain last year and has warned Japan not to patrol the region, is keen to control the valuable sea lanes and claim economic ownership over vast oil deposits that are thought to be in the vicinity of the islands.

The move has provoked criticism from Washington and Tokyo over Beijing’s plans to place extensive military units on the fake islands as a way to wrestle control of the entire island chain, also known by China as the Nansha Islands, and increase its maritime strength in the South China Sea. Co-claimants Malaysia, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have denounced China's moves.

Spratly Island Map Map of Spratly Islands detailing occupation by neighboring countries, includes map of coral reefs. Photo: Reuters

Hua Chunying, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said that the next step would be to “begin fulfilling the relevant functions of the facilities,” according to a report in the South China Morning Post, an independent newspaper based in Hong Kong. “The construction is mainly to provide services to meet civilian demands so as to better facilitate China’s efforts at maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and reduction, maritime research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, safety of navigation, fishery services and so on, in keeping with [our] international responsibilities and obligations.”

She added: “Certainly, our relevant construction will also include satisfying the necessary military defense needs.”

U.S. officials have said that China has so far claimed over 600 hectares of land from the area, which has led to concerns that Beijing is countering White House and Pentagon plans to pivot towards Asia in the coming decades. In May, the Pentagon claimed that China had already placed large artillery vehicles on some of the fake Islands, according to an NBC report.