BEIJING (AP) — China's Defense Ministry on Thursday accused the U.S. of militarizing the South China Sea as Beijing makes increasingly bold moves to assert its claim to virtually all of the sea's waters, islands and reefs.
Spokesman Yang Yujun's remarks were prompted by comments last week from the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, criticizing Chinese projects to build up islands in disputed waters.
Harris warned such work could undermine international norms that have long supported the global economy and political order.
Speaking at a monthly news conference, Yang said China rejected such claims totally and accused the U.S. of ulterior motives.
"The U.S. side disregards and distorts the facts and plays up China's military threat to sow discord between China and the littoral states in the South China Sea. We firmly oppose such actions," Yang said.
U.S. close-in reconnaissance of the Chinese armed forces, strengthened military alliances with the Philippines and others, and frequent military exercises are raising tensions and creating risks of incidents in the air and at sea, Yang said.
"The Chinese side expresses its serious concern over U.S. activities to militarize the South China Sea region," he said. "Such actions taken by the U.S. side would inevitably arouse suspicion from others that, does the U.S. want nothing better than chaos in the region?"
In response, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that since the end of World War II, the U.S. has played a "critical role" in supporting the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific, which has been instrumental in the region's "remarkable growth." He called on South China Sea claimants to peacefully manage and resolve their disputes in accordance with international law.
China and five other claimants have competing claims to all or part of the South China Sea, home to rich fishing grounds, potentially significant mineral reserves and some of the world's most crucial shipping lanes.
Harris said last week the South China Sea was now "front and center in the tug-of-war between the majority of regional nations that want to maintain the status quo and China that wants to change it to suit its narrow self-interest."
China accuses the U.S. of maintaining a double standard by not criticizing work by other countries on their South China Sea holdings.
However, Harris said the amount of land reclaimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan over the last 45 years totaled a mere 40 hectares (100 acres), a fraction of the more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) reclaimed by China in the last 18 months alone.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.