BEIJING (Reuters) - Recent drills by the Chinese navy are routine and not connected to tension over the disputed South China Sea, the country's Defense Ministry said on Wednesday, calling for people to view the exercises in a "rational" way.
Harsh rhetoric and an occasional stand-off have long been part of the jousting over the contested South China Sea. But there are more frequent incidents and the complaints from Southeast Asian capitals about China's actions are louder.
"What needs explaining is that a series of recent naval drills are routine and planned annually and have no connection with the situation at present in the South China Sea," ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a news conference, according to a transcript posted on the ministry's website(www.mod.gov.cn).
"We have seen that some reports have been excessively speculative and overly interpretative. We hope that everyone can objectively and rationally view these normal naval exercises," he added.
China's growing military clout had added to regional jitters about the country's rise. China says that it needs to upgrade its outmoded forces and that its plans are not a threat to any country, pointing out that its Defense budget is far smaller than that of the United States.
Still, tensions have risen sharply in the South China Sea in recent months on concern China is becoming more assertive in its claim to the disputed waters believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.
Vietnam and the Philippines have expressed particular concern about China's growing assertiveness in the seas, including harassment of ships. An Australian think tanks said on Tuesday that risks were growing that incidents at sea involving China could lead to war in Asia.
The United States and the Philippines are scheduled to hold maritime security exercises near the disputed waters this week.
Yang said U.S-Philippines Defense cooperation "ought not to be directed at any third party, nor damage the interests of any third party."
"We hope that relevant countries can put regional peace and stability at the forefront and do more to benefit regional peace and stability," he added.
On Monday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that deplored China's use of force against Vietnamese and Philippine ships in the South China Sea.
But Yang repeated Beijing's stance that the United States should stay out of the matter.
"The peace and stability of the South China Sea accords with the common interests of all countries in the Asia Pacific, including China and the United States," he added.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territories in the sea, which covers an important shipping route and is thought to hold untapped oil and gas reserves.
China's claim is to most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)