By Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's military sharply criticized the United States on Monday for holding military drills in contested waters of the South China Sea, a dispute Beijing has warned Washington not to meddle in.
Chen Bingde, People's Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff, said that if the United States really wanted peace in the South China Sea, then the timing of its recent military exercises in the region was poor.
"The U.S. has said many times that it does not intend to get involved in the South China Sea dispute, but ... is actually sending out the opposite signal," Chen told a joint news conference with the visiting head of the U.S. military, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
"Despite having conducted them in the past, holding these military drills at this moment is extremely inappropriate," Chen said.
China has been embroiled in a row with the Philippines and Vietnam in recent months over what each government sees as intrusions and illegitimate claims in the stretch of ocean spanning key shipping lanes and possibly rich in oil and gas.
Beijing has called for disputes to be resolved bilaterally, a strategy some critics have described as "divide and conquer."
Others, including the Philippines, have urged a multilateral approach, and Manila has staged naval drills with the U.S. navy in the region.
The Philippines' foreign secretary said he proposed to China that the dispute be resolved through U.N. arbitration on his visit to Beijing last week, but did not express confidence that China would agree.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea. China's claim is the largest, forming a vast U-shape over most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
China-U.S. military-to-military relations have been rocky. China dislikes U.S. reconnaissance patrols nears its coast and is suspicious of its bases in South Korea and Japan.
"America's global unmanned aircraft have conducted reconnaissance only 16 nautical miles from China's border. This is very, very close. I hope our American friends can adopt measures in this regard that will fully consider the feelings of the Chinese people," Chen said.
The U.S. for its part wants greater military transparency from China over its military modernization, and has warned about China's growing missile and cyber capabilities.
Self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by China as its sovereign territory, has been another major irritant. China severed military ties with the United States in early 2010, furious about $6.4 billion in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Mullen's four-day trip to China comes as Washington and Beijing try to patch up relations between their two militaries.
But Mullen reiterated his earlier pledges that the U.S. would maintain its long-standing military presence in Asia and defended the military drills as inline with international law.
"These flights, these operations, these exercises are all conducted in accordance with international norms, and essentially we will continue to comply with that in the future," Mullen said.
(Editing by Brian Rhoads)