China blasts US President Obama over military 'muscle' in South China Sea

BEIJING (AFP) - Beijing hit back on Friday at US President Barack Obama's criticism of Chinese construction in the disputed South China Sea, arguing that it is Washington that has greater military "muscle".

The Chinese foreign ministry's retort came a day after Obama warned that Beijing was "using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions", amid reports of controversial Chinese land reclamation efforts.

"The US leader talked about China's 'sheer size and muscle', but one can also see clearly who has the biggest size and muscle in the world," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing.

She called on Washington to "genuinely make efforts to safeguard peace and stability" in the region.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including areas near the coasts of other states, using a line that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping claims.

Newly-released satellite images on the website of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank show a flotilla of Chinese vessels dredging sand onto a feature known as Mischief Reef.

Before-and-after images of other outcrops in the Spratly Islands show aircraft runways appearing from jungle, smooth-sided solid masses where there once was coral and man-made harbours replacing natural reefs.

Analysts say the pictures show how China is attempting to create "facts in the water" to bolster its territorial claim.

Manila, among the most vocal critics of Beijing's actions in the region, on Friday appealed to the international community to intervene conceding it and other countries were powerless to stop China's construction of the artificial islands.

"We are asking the international community to tell China that what it is doing is wrong, and to ask China to stop this reclamation work," Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told AFP.

China's declared defence budget of 886.9 billion yuan (S$195 billion) this year is 55 times the Philippines' 115.5 billion pesos (S$3.5 billion).

Manila believes Beijing is rushing the reclamation to undermine a United Nations ruling expected next year on a Philippine challenge to its claims, Jose said.

"We think China has a plan and they think they have the means to do it and they can actually do it. So that's why they're doing it," he said.

On Thursday, Obama waded into the debate, telling a town hall meeting during a visit to Jamaica that Beijing should not push around countries with which it is in dispute in the South China Sea.

"Just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn't mean that they can just be elbowed aside," Obama said.

The United States has no claim of its own in the region, but broadly supports its Asian allies against Chinese pressure and has asserted that freedom of navigation is in its national interest.

Hua on Friday maintained that China has maintained "security and peace" in the region and was working with neighbouring countries.

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