- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2016

BEIJING (AP) - China’s second-ranking general recently visited the country’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, the Defense Ministry said Friday, underscoring China’s defiance in the face of calls by the U.S. and others to cease construction work that they say is raising tensions in the region.

According to the brief statement, Gen. Fan Changlong led a group of military commanders to the Spratly island group to visit troops and observe construction work. The statement didn’t say when and where Fan, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the People’s Liberation Army, visited.

The announcement comes after China issued an angry response to what it says are provocative plans announced Thursday that the U.S. would send troops and planes to the Philippines for more frequent rotations and will increase joint sea and air patrols with Philippine forces in the South China Sea.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter was also visiting an aircraft carrier Friday during a trip to the region that does not include a stop in China.

In reporting on Fan’s visit, the ministry said China had completed work on five lighthouses, four of which are now operational, in the Spratlys, saying those were built to “provide a public service for the international community.” Work on a weather station, ocean monitoring center, oceanographic equipment and other facilities was also “proceeding smoothly,” the report said.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its own territory and is topping the islands by piling sand and building airstrips and other infrastructure. The Philippines, Vietnam and others also claim territory controlled or claimed by China, and increased military and coast guard deployments by all sides could increase the potential for conflict.

Late Thursday, the Defense Ministry said that Beijing would “resolutely defend” its sovereignty and maritime interests while accusing the Philippines and U.S. of militarizing the region and harboring a “Cold War mentality” by strengthening their alliance.

The South China Sea dispute also featured in talks between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of close U.S. ally Australia, which is trying to balance security needs with its economy’s reliance on the Chinese market.

“We’ve always had good and constructive discussions but our position is that all claimants, all claimants, should settle disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law,” Turnbull told reporters in Beijing on Friday, a day after his meeting with Li.

Beijing and Washington have repeatedly traded accusations over who is responsible for raising tensions in the South China Sea, with the U.S. citing China’s island-building project and efforts to block other claimants from parts of the crucial waterway, through which passes more than $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.

Su Hao, an international relations expert at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, said that Beijing anticipates the U.S. will eventually launch joint patrols with other nations to further challenge China’s position in the South China Sea

“The U.S. has been taking all kinds of actions to provoke China, forcing it to take counter-actions that will result in an escalation of the situation,” Su told The Associated Press.


Associated Press video journalist Aritz Parra and researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.

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