General Chen Bingde and Admiral Mike MullenAt a recent news conference Monday, Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, questioned the purpose of U.S. reconnaissance activities in the region, and said the timing of U.S. naval exercises this year with Vietnam and the Philippines was “inappropriate” in light of a recent flare-up in those countries’ disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Adm. Mullen countered that those exercises were routine, relatively small and planned well in advance of the recent incidents there. He also indicated that the U.S. would continue such activities as well as reconnaissance operations, which he said were in accordance with international norms.

Later in the day, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that he had informed China last week that Manila plans to bring a dispute over the Spratly Islands, which are in the South China Sea, to the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The South China Sea, which may contain valuable oil and gas deposits, is claimed in almost its entirety by China and in part by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The U.S. has also angered China by claiming a strategic interest in freedom of navigation through its waters, which carry much of the world’s trade.

China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment about the Philippines’ announcement, but Gen. Chen repeated China’s longstanding position that it claims “indisputable” sovereignty and seeks to resolve territorial issues bilaterally, without interference from nations such as the U.S. that haven’t made claims on the region.

Adm. Mullen’s four-day trip, which began Saturday, follows a visit by Gen. Chen to the U.S. in May and is part of bilateral efforts to repair military exchanges, which were resumed in January following a 12-month suspension by China in protest at U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Both sides have expressed their commitment to enhance communication and cooperation during Adm. Mullen’s visit, which included a meeting Monday with Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and heir apparent to China President Hu Jintao, and continues with tours of air force, army, and submarine bases Tuesday.

In a joint statement Monday, the two sides agreed, among other things, that Adm. Mullen and Gen. Chen would continue to communicate regularly through a newly established telephone link, and they pledged to conduct unprecedented bilateral joint antipiracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia before the year’s end.

In an apparent response to repeated U.S. requests for greater transparency, the Pentagon said Chinese personnel showed Adm. Mullen a CSS-7 short-range ballistic missile on a mobile launcher during a visit Sunday to the headquarters of China’s Second Artillery, which controls its nuclear and conventional strategic missiles.

But the testy exchanges over the South China Sea highlight the mounting tensions there. Gen. Chen said that the South China Sea was the first issue he raised with Adm. Mullen, who had expressed his concern Sunday that the ongoing incidents there risked escalating into open conflict.

“On various occasions, the U.S. side has expressed that it does not have the intention to intervene in the disputes in the South China Sea,” Gen. Chen said. Pointing to recent joint exercises in the area between the U.S. and the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries, Gen. Chen said “the timing of these joint exercises is inappropriate as we see it.”

When Adm. Mullen responded that the exercises weren’t large and were planned long ago, Gen. Chen fired back that, whether they were big or small, they were still exercises. “It is not that difficult to change the schedule,” Gen. Chen added.

A series of incidents at sea over the last few weeks has already prompted angry exchanges between the Chinese government and those of Vietnam and the Philippines, which have also both been strengthening military ties with the U.S. in response to Beijing’s more assertive diplomacy over the last two years.

The U.S. has just completed 11 days of annual joint naval exercises with the Philippines and is due to conduct exercises with Vietnam this month. The U.S., Japan and Australia also conducted low-level joint naval drills in the South China Sea for the first time on Saturday.

Gen. Chen urged the U.S. to be “more modest and prudent in words and deeds” and also took issue with U.S. reconnaissance operations, saying that unmanned aerial vehicles had come within 16 nautical miles—or nearly 30 kilometers—of China’s territorial waters.

Admiral Mullen said: “These flights, these operations, these exercises are all conducted in accordance with international norms, and essentially we will continue to comply with that in the future.”

Gen. Chen insisted that China’s newly developed weaponry—including a “carrier-killing” antiship ballistic missile and an aircraft carrier expected to begin sea trials in August—was only for defensive purposes, but offered no new information on either.

He also said that China’s military technology was still some 20 years behind that of the U.S.—whose military budget is far higher than Beijing’s—and questioned the sustainability of American defense spending.

“I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis,” he said. “Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military and isn’t that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers?

“If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a bit and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people … wouldn’t that be a better scenario?”

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