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China hits back at U.S. criticism over South China Sea ‘restrictions’

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© Reuters. An activist wears a black mask with a message reading “China Get Out!” as they protest against Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea outside the Chinese consulate in Makati city

BEIJING (Reuters) – China hit back on Monday at U.S. criticism that it restricts navigation and overflights in the South China Sea amid a festering marine territorial dispute with some of its neighbors.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

Freedom of overflights and navigation doesn’t mean allowing foreign warships and military jets to violate other countries’ sovereignty and security, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement to Reuters on Monday, after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused China of restricting such movements in the region last week.

China sees freedom of navigation in the region as key because it is an important conduit for trade and natural resources, the ministry said.

Kerry told a meeting of regional leaders in Kuala Lumpur last week that China’s construction of facilities on man-made islands for “military purposes” was raising tension and risked “militarization” by other claimant states.

Kerry also criticized “restrictions” put in place in recent months by China, saying the U.S. would not accept any restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflights.

China has repeatedly warned Philippine military aircraft away from the artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, Philippine military officials have said.

The Chinese navy also issued eight warnings to the crew of a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft when it conducted overflights in the area in May, according to CNN, which was aboard the U.S. aircraft.

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In June, China said it would soon complete a phase of its reclamation projects, adding it would continue to build facilities on the man-made islands.

Ongoing reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands include civilian facilities for the “public good” including hospitals, maritime research institutes, lighthouses and search and rescue facilities, the Foreign Ministry said.

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