BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s Defence Ministry on Thursday accused the United States of “militarizing” the South China Sea by staging patrols and joint military drills there, ramping up the rhetoric ahead of a key regional security meeting in Malaysia next week.
China has repeatedly urged Washington not to take sides in the escalating maritime dispute over the area, where the Asian giant last year stepped up its creation of artificial islands, alarming neighbors and provoking U.S. criticism.
Washington has demanded China halt land reclamation and militarization of the disputed area and pursue a peaceful resolution according to international law.
China has been angered by U.S. navy and air force forays through waters it claims as its own, especially this month, when U.S. Navy Admiral Scott Swift said he joined a routine surveillance flight.
The United States has also stepped up military contacts, including drills, with regional allies such as the Philippines, which also has claims in the South China Sea.
The United States was hyping up the “China threat” and attempting to sow discord between China and other claimant countries, Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a news briefing.
“China is extremely concerned at the United States’ pushing of the militarization of the South China Sea region,” he said.
“What they are doing can’t help but make people wonder whether they want nothing better than chaos.”
For a long time, the United States had carried out frequent, widespread, close-in surveillance of China, by sending ships and aircraft to the region, he added.
“Recently they have further increased military alliances and their military presence, frequently holding joint drills.”
But if certain U.S. officials wanted to take civilian flights over the South China Sea to “enjoy its beauty”, China had no problem with that, he said.
China’s own drills there were a normal part of its routine military exercises and not aimed at any third party, Yang said.
But he expressed concern at reports that Filipino fishermen had found buoys with Chinese markings near the disputed Scarborough Shoal and towed them back to shore northwest of Manila.
“If these reports are correct, then certain people have elbowed their way into somebody else’s home, and taken others’ possessions.”
On Thursday, the head of Philippine military, General Hernando Iriberri, told journalists in Manila it was investigating reports China had reclaimed three more reefs in the South China Sea as well as activities in Scarborough Shoal.
The South China Sea is likely to feature prominently at next week’s security meeting in Malaysia, attended by Southeast Asia and Chinese foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, but Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and others have overlapping claims.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie