This week, China launched at least four ballistic missiles during military exercises around the Paracel Islands. The US Department of Defense said the launches were a threat to peace and security in the region.
In a statement, the Pentagon said: “Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability.
“The PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] actions, including missile tests, further destabilise the situation in the South China Sea.
“Such exercises also violate PRC commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
Now, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has argued the missile launches were “routine arrangements”.
He said during a press briefing: “They are not targeted at any country and have nothing to do with the South China Sea disputes.
“There is no basis or reason for the relevant party to make that accusation.”
Despite the US having no claim to any part of the disputed region, Washington has increased its military presence in the area.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged other nations to counter China’s dominance in the region.
He said: “The US has frequently dispatched in large numbers advanced warships, fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft all the way to the South China Sea to project its power and engage in military provocations undermining China’s sovereignty and security interests as well as the normal order of navigation in the South China Sea.”
Mr Lijian went on to argue it is the US, not China, causing trouble in the region.
He continued: “The US has become the saboteur and troublemaker of peace and stability in the South China Sea.
“The International community bears witness to these all.
“The US side should stop stirring up trouble and causing discord in the South China Sea and play a constructive role in safeguarding regional peace stability.”
However, US Pacific Fleet spokesperson Navy Lieutenant James Adams defended the Navy’s actions.
He told Newsweek: “Unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, of unimpeded trade and commerce, and of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.
“The United States will never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the People’s Republic of China.
“The PRC’s behaviour stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
The South China Sea region is a highly disputed territory, facing rival ownership claims from China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Diplomatic relations between the nations, which have laid claim to the islands, are already extremely strained.
The islands and surrounding reefs have been the subject of a bitter and long-running territorial dispute.
Over recent months, fears of a World War 3 outbreak were raised after China constructed military bunkers on some of the atolls.