WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Friday rejected criticism by the U.S. Defense Department of its plan to hold military exercises in the South China Sea, and suggested that Washington was to blame for increased tensions in the region.
The Pentagon said in a statement on Thursday that conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea was "counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability".
China announced last week it had scheduled five days of drills starting July 1 near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.
"The military exercises are the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea," the Pentagon statement said, referring to the People's Republic of China.
Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticized the planned Chinese drills, warning it could create tension in the region and impact Beijing's relationship with its neighbors.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin warned China on Friday "it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate" should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory.
"To be sure, China is just as entitled, as any other power, to invoke freedom of navigation in its military exercises. But that freedom, it bears reminding, requires a straight and uninterrupted voyage," Locsin said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, asked about the Pentagon's comments during a daily briefing in Beijing, said the military exercises are within the scope of China's sovereignty and said that certain "non-regional countries" conducting military exercises in the South China Sea are affecting the region's stability.
Zhao did not name any countries, but the United States has conducted multiple freedom of navigation operations by sending its warships through the area to assert the freedom of access to international waterways.
The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year.
(Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kim Coghill)