BEIJING (AFP) - Beijing's South China Sea defences are "reasonable and necessary", its Foreign Ministry said on Friday (Feb 26), responding to a top United States admiral who warned of it securing "de facto" control of the region.
China claims almost the whole of the area - through which a third of the world's oil passes - while several other littoral states have competing claims, as does Taiwan.
The Asian giant is using dredgers to turn reefs and low-lying features into larger land masses for runways and other military uses to bolster its claims of sovereignty.
The US has raised concerns that the activities could pose challenges to the free passage of ships and aircraft through the strategically vital area.
"If China continues to arm all of the bases they have reclaimed in the South China Sea, they will change the operational landscape in the region," US Admiral Harry Harris told Pentagon reporters on Thursday.
"Short of war with the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea".
At a regular press briefing on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that Adm Harris' comments amounted to "smearing China's legitimate and reasonable actions" while "making excuses for US attempts at hegemony at sea".
"Facts are facts: China's deployments in the South China Sea are reasonable and appropriate homeland defence facilities, and do not constitute militarisation," he added.
Satellite imagery released this week shows Beijing is installing radar gear, has also deployed surface-to-air missiles and has lengthened a runway to accommodate fighter jets on one islet, Woody Island, in the Paracels.
Adm Harris expressed concern over the possibility that China might be preparing what is known as an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire South China Sea, through which it could militarily query any vessel or aircraft passing through.
Mr Hong did not deny the possibility, but said that such a decision "would depend on the development of the situation", which is at the moment "stable".