BEIJING (REUTERS) - The United States' claims that China is militarising the South China Sea are "ridiculous", China said on Thursday (May 31), after US Defence Secretary James Mattis said Washington would continue to confront Beijing's actions in the disputed waterways.
Mattis said on Tuesday that the US would pushback against what it sees as China's militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, despite drawing condemnation from Beijing for an operation in the region over the weekend.
"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.
Hua also questioned whether the 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 added.
The Global Times, a popular state-backed Chinese tabloid that does not reflect official policy, said in an editorial on Thursday that China must prepare to forcefully respond to any "extreme" interference in the South China Sea by the US.
"Aside from deploying defensive weapons on the Spratly Islands, China should build a powerful deterrence system, including an aerial base and a roving naval force and base," the paper said.
Reuters first reported that two US Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China on Sunday, prompting anger in Beijing, which claims most of the strategic waters where Chinese, Japanese and some South-east Asian navies operate.
While the Sunday operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a sensitive time and days after the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major US-hosted naval drill.
Pentagon officials have long complained that China has not been candid enough about its rapid military build-up and using South China Sea islands to gather intelligence.
Recent satellite photographs showed China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody Island.
Earlier this month, China's air force landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise in the region.
Mattis is expected to have strong words for China when he travels to Singapore for the Shangri-la dialogue, a security forum, later this weekend.
LIAONING COMBAT READY
Meanwhile China's defence ministry said on Thursday the carrier group led by China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has reached “initial” combat readiness, in another significant step in the country’s ambitious military modernisation programme.
Little is known about the aircraft carrier programme, which China regards as a state secret. It is part of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping plan to refurbish the armed forces by developing everything from stealth jets to anti-satellite missiles, as China ramps up its presence in the disputed South China Sea and around self-ruled Taiwan.
China bought the Soviet-era Liaoning secondhand from Ukraine in 1998, before refitting mainly for training use as it honed the ability to operate fighter jets at sea and with other warships. But the Liaoning has gone on increasingly high-profile missions recently, such as sailing around Taiwan, which China claims, and into the South China Sea.
The Liaoning and its accompanying carrier group had successfully been carrying out training missions, Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a monthly news briefing.
“The carrier group’s exercises have been deepened to include combat operations in the open seas. It has initially formed a system combat capability,” Ren said, without elaborating.
China’s second, domestically-developed, carrier, began sea trials earlier in May. It is as yet unnamed.
Chinese military experts have told state media the new carrier, built in the northeastern port of Dalian, is not expected to enter service until 2020, once it has been fully fitted out and armed.
Ren said he had no details to provide on whether China was building any other carriers.