BEIJING - China's defense spokesman said Friday the nation was opposed to "internationalizing" the South China Sea issue, the first time the military had commented on a fermenting dispute in which the United States said issues in the region were in its "national interests".
The spokesman also called on the US to "contribute to bilateral military exchanges". The Pentagon had called for the resumption of stagnated military ties that China cut off in January after the US offered to sell $6.4-billion of arms to Taiwan.
In the first public response to the South China Sea dispute, Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng, the new defense spokesperson, said China "has indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding waters".
Geng was responding to a US reporter who asked for comments about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks last week in Vietnam.
"We oppose the South China Sea issue being internationalized," said Geng in his first public press briefing. He added that China respects the ships and aircraft from "relevant countries" entering the South China Sea in accordance with international laws.
Clinton said in Vietnam last week that the US was concerned that conflicting claims to the Nansha (Spratly) and Xisha (Paracel) island chains were interfering with maritime commerce, hampering access to international waters and undermining the United Nations law of the sea, the Associated Press reported.
The US, Clinton said, has a "national interest" in resolving the claims and opposes the use or threat of force by any claimant, said AP.
Japan, a close ally of the US, also pledged to engage in the South China Sea dispute by talking with some ASEAN member states that also claim some or all of the islands located near vital shipping lanes.
China would push for a resolution with "relevant countries" through peaceful negotiations and friendly dialogue according to international law, said Geng.
He took the initiative to comment on hot issues on Friday ahead of Sunday's 83rd anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Issues including the joint military drills involving the Republic of Korea and the US have intensified the situation in the waters off China.
While China and the US have moved ahead in cooperation in many sectors as the two countries have become increasingly inter-dependent, military exchanges have lagged behind, with the South China Sea issue and the joint ROK-US drills emerging as the latest dispute between the two nations.
China severed military ties with the US in January following the arms sale to Taiwan and reportedly turned down a proposed visit recently by US Defense Minister Robert Gates.
With China also staging military drills in waters alongside the ROK-US drills, speculation that China had staged them intentionally to send a message to the US had been raging.
But Geng denied there was any connection.
"The increased exposure of Chinese military exercises aims to showcase a more open, pragmatic and transparent Chinese military," said Geng.
"I hope our friends in the media correctly analyze and understand the exercises and do not speculate or over interpret them."
Geng also denied reports that there had been a nighttime fighter plane drill over China's east coast this week.
"Recently, some media reported that, on the night of July 26, hundreds of combat planes flew over Qingdao for more than 40 minutes," he said. "As far as I know, it is not true."
When asked about the possibility of resuming military exchanges with the US, Geng urged the Americans to "create a favorable environment and conditions to promote military exchanges between the two countries".
"China attaches great importance to military relations between the two countries," he said, adding that China has taken a positive attitude and made unremitting efforts in this regard.
The US "should handle carefully, sensitive issues such as arms sales to Taiwan," said Geng.
Taiwan's CNA News reported Friday that the US Defense Department had contracted Boeing to manufacture 32 Harpoon missile bodies for Taiwan, which was announced on the Defense Department's website on Thursday.
The Harpoon is an all-weather, over-the-horizon, anti-ship missile system developed and first manufactured in 1977 by McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing Defense, Space & Security, according to CNA.
In 2008, the Defense Department approved Taiwan's request for the missiles, which are reportedly to be used to arm Taiwan's two submarines, said CNA.
Geng also said China will send more than 1,000 army and air force officers and soldiers to take part in an anti-terror exercise in Kazakhstan this autumn.
The "Peace Mission 2010" exercise will be the seventh of its kind held under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Geng said.
"The joint exercise is to show the determination and capacity of SCO members in combating terrorism, separatism and extremism, their mutual trust, high level and pragmatic cooperation," said Geng.