BEIJING • US assertions that China is militarising the South China Sea are "ridiculous", China said yesterday, after US Defence Secretary James Mattis said Washington would confront Beijing's actions in the disputed waterways.
Mr Mattis said on Tuesday that Washington would push back against what it sees as Beijing's militarisation of islands in the South China Sea despite China's condemnation of a voyage through the region during the weekend by two US Navy ships.
"The United States military presence in the South China Sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing yesterday.
Ms Hua also questioned whether US Navy "freedom of navigation" operations were really about preserving the right for ships to sail through the region or an attempt to maintain hegemony.
"This sounds like a case of a thief crying 'stop thief' to cover their misdeeds," she said.
Speaking at a separate briefing, Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said China had noted that the US had recently been "turning a blind eye to the facts and hyping up" the militarisation of the South China Sea.
No country has the right to "make irresponsible remarks" about China's building of necessary defence facilities on its own territory, Senior Colonel Ren said at a monthly news briefing.
However, he said the US had formally proposed that Mr Mattis visit China, and both countries were coordinating on details. He did not provide a date for a possible trip.
Pentagon officials have long complained that China has not been candid enough about its rapid military build-up, and was using South China Sea islands to gather intelligence.
Mr Mattis is expected to have strong words for China at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference of defence ministers, officials and analysts from the Asia-Pacific, in Singapore beginning today.
Meanwhile, China announced yesterday that the carrier group led by its navy's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has reached "initial"combat readiness, in another significant step in the country's ambitious military modernisation programme.
The Liaoning, a Soviet-era vessel China bought secondhand from Ukraine in 1998, has gone on increasingly high-profile missions recently, such as sailing around Taiwan and into the South China Sea.
The vessel and its accompanying carrier group had successfully been carrying out training missions, Senior Col Ren said.
"The carrier group's exercises have been deepened to include combat operations in the open seas. It has initially formed a system combat capability," he said, without elaborating.
China's second, domestically developed, carrier, began sea trials early last month. It is as yet unnamed.