SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - The Chinese navy played down recent military drills in the South China Sea and criticised other countries for "illegally" occupying islands in the area, the official Xinhua news service reported on Saturday.
China has launched a naval drill in waters to the east of Hainan island, a largely unpopulated region of reefs and shoals in which a number of countries maintain contradictory and overlapping territorial claims.
"Holding sea drills is a common practice for navies with various countries. The annual drill by the Chinese navy aims to test the troops' real combat abilities, boost their manoeuvrability, search and rescue power and the abilities to fulfil diversified military missions," Xinhua quoted Chinese navy spokesperson Liang Yang saying.
China's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea has increased military and diplomatic tensions between it and rival claimants including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
China's naval stance also clashes with the air and sea movements of units of the US Pacific Fleet, which aims to protect sea lanes critical to US trade with South-east Asia and the oil-rich Middle East.
Beijing has been building up uninhabited reefs in the area in recent months, constructing airports, defences systems and even civilian administrations on rocks with no access to fresh water but seen as bolstering legal arguments around its territorial claims by converting uninhabitable reef into defended, populated Chinese islands.
The United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea says countries can't claim sovereignty over land masses submerged by tides or previously submerged but which have been raised above high tide levels by construction.
China has also approved guidelines that would make civilian vessels quickly convertible for military use, according to state media.
Many of China's confrontations with neighbours have been conducted with a mixture of military and civilian vessels, including fishing boats.
Other claimants have also built facilities on reefs, they claim.
"Some neighbouring countries have long been illegally occupying some of the islands, building facilities there such as airports and even deploying heavy offensive weapons," Liang said.