China's ongoing construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea "continues to be worrisome," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said Wednesday at the Pentagon.

James returned from a tour through several Asian nations, meeting with other defense officials and air force officers.

"Everywhere we went, we did talk about the situation in the South China Sea," she said. "Even in the wake of The Hague ruling, China still appears to be building, at least on certain islands. It has not appeared to, certainly not stop, it hasn't appeared to abate."

In July, the international court in The Hague, Netherlands, rejected China's claim to much of the South China Sea and said that the so-called 'Nine-Dash Line' isn't legally valid.

The Nine-Dash Line is China's demarcation of its claim to most of the South China Sea, including territory much closer to the borders of the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia than the Chinese shore. According to the United Nations, each country has territorial rights extending 200 nautical miles from its coast, but China's Nine-Dash Line claims water and islands that are thousands of miles from the mainland.

Chinese officials have said they will not recognize The Hague's ruling.

In addition to creating artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Chinese have also started to build airstrips and command and control towers on some of the landmasses.

"There is militarization going on in some of these islands," James said. "To me, there's nothing else you can read into that other than it is a militarization in order to be able to project power to do something. What might that something be, you can only speculate. That is what is worrisome to us."

The secretary said she believes China's moves aren't just for show.

"I think if you're going to devote this much time and attention and money, it's more than just symbolism," she said. "China is a global power … and to be able to extend their reach is something I think they're very interested in. ... Should it ever impede freedom of navigation, where so much of the world's trade goes through this area, I think this is a worrisome situation for all of us."

James, who traveled to India, Indonesia, Singapore, Guam and the Philippines, said both she and her foreign counterparts are reiterating calls that all nations respect three core principles in the South China Sea: 1) freedom of navigation, 2) the importance of the rule of law, and 3) peaceful resolution to disputes.

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos is meeting with members of the Chinese government to discuss the situation, and James said the U.S. will remain engaged in resolving the disagreements in the region.

"The U.S. is very much a Pacific power," James said. "We want a good and balanced relationship with China, but we do want China to respect the rule of law and freedom of navigation. We want to resolve this in a peaceful way."

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