by Ben Blanchard (Reuters) China’s Defense Ministry on Friday denied U.S. accusations that the Chinese military had recently carried out missile tests in the disputed South China Sea, saying instead that they had held routine drills that involved the firing of live ammunition.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday the missile launch was “disturbing” and contrary to Chinese pledges that it would not militarize the strategic waterway.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Friday that according to initial information, China appeared to have tested multiple anti-ship ballistic missiles last weekend. The official added that a detailed analysis was under way.
In a brief statement sent to Reuters responding to the U.S. claims, China’s Defense Ministry said this was not true. “The relevant reports do not accord with the facts,” it said.
“Recently, the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command arranged live ammunition firing drills in waters near Hainan island in accordance with annual exercise arrangements,” the ministry added. “These were not aimed at any country or any specific target,” it said, without elaborating.
Hu Xijin, editor of the widely read Chinese tabloid the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in an English-language tweet the U.S. claims were misleading.
“Reliable source told me that Pentagon’s claim of ‘Chinese missile launch from the man-made structures in the South China Sea’ is misleading information and some details came out of thin air, intended to sow discord among regional countries,” he wrote. Hu gave no other details.
The South China Sea is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which include a trade war, U.S. sanctions and self-ruled Taiwan, which is claimed by China as its own.
China and the United States have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.
China says the United States is to blame for tensions by repeatedly sending warships close to Chinese-held islands, and that China’s sovereignty in the area is irrefutable.
The Chinese government said last week that the military was carrying out drills between the Spratly and Paracel Islands starting last weekend and ending on Wednesday, warning other shipping not to enter a designated area.
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes each year, are contested all or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
News of the China missile tests was first reported by NBC News.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish, Reuters