BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. assertions that China is militarizing the South China Sea are "ridiculous", China said on Thursday, after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Washington would confront China's actions in the disputed waterways.
Mattis said on Tuesday the United States would push back against what it sees as China's militarization of islands in the South China Sea despite China's condemnation of a voyage through the region on the weekend by two U.S. Navy ships.
"The United States military presence in the South China Sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing.
Hua also questioned whether U.S. Navy "freedom of navigation" operations were really about preserving the right for ships to sail through the region or an attempt to maintain hegemony.
"This sounds like a case of a thief crying 'stop thief' to cover their misdeeds," she said.
Speaking at a separate briefing, defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said they had noted that the United States had recently been "turning a blind eye to the facts and hyping up" the militarization of the South China Sea.
No country has the right to "make irresponsible remarks" about China's building of necessary defense facilities on its own territory, Ren said.
However, he said the United Sides had formally proposed Mattis visit China, and both countries were coordinating on details. He did not provide a date for a possible trip.
The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese tabloid that does not reflect official policy, said in an editorial on Thursday that China must prepare to forcefully respond to any "extreme" U.S. interference in the South China Sea.
"Aside from deploying defensive weapons on the Spratly Islands, China should build a powerful deterrence system, including an aerial base and a roving naval force and base," the paper said.
Reuters first reported that two U.S. Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China on Sunday, prompting anger in Beijing, which claims most of the strategic waters where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.
While the Sunday operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a sensitive time and days after the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major U.S.-hosted naval drill.
Pentagon officials have long complained that China has not been candid enough about its rapid military build-up and using South China Sea islands to gather intelligence.
Recent satellite photographs showed China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody Island.
This month, China's air force landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise.[L3N1SR08Q]
Mattis is expected to have strong words for China at a Shangri-la dialogue conference in Singapore beginning on Friday.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel)