Beijing: As the US went on an offensive over the disputed South China Sea alleging the Chinese reclamation projects there may hinder freedom of navigation, China on Saturday hit back saying that free movement in the tense region was never hindered but it should not be abused.
"Over the years, there has never been any issue with freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (SCS) nor would such an issue come up in the future," China's Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said in a signed article carried by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Liu said China has been "a strong advocate for safeguarding freedom of navigation by all countries in the South China Sea in accordance with international law."
"Having said that, the right to freedom of navigation and over flight should not be abused or infringe on the sovereignty, rights and security of the littoral states, which are protected by international law," he said.
Freedom of navigation in the SCS became an issue after the Chinese Navy last week asked a US surveillance plane with CNN crew on board to leave the area of an artificial island being constructed by China near Spratly island, called Nansha China.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter today called for an immediate end to the intensifying Chinese reclamation works in the SCS and vowed to continue sending military aircraft and ships to the tense region.
At the on going Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, Carter said "there should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all around the world."
He also called for an immediate and lasting halt" to reclamation works in the SCS, saying the Chinese behaviour in the area was "out of step" with international norms.
Besides the US, India too has been calling for freedom of navigation based on the principles of UN Convention of Law of Seas (UNCLOS).
China claims sovereignty over almost all of the SCS, a major global shipping route believed to be home to oil and gas reserves. Many other nations and region like the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to areas in the SCS.
"The SCS provides major shipping lanes for China's trade and imports of energy. To ensure the freedom and safety of navigation in the SCS is of vital importance to China," Liu said.
Defending the Chinese reclamation work, Liu said China's construction activities on the Nansha islands and reefs are entirely within its sovereignty.
"It is lawful, justified, and reasonable. It does not affect or target any particular country. Such construction activities are aimed to strengthen the functions of some islands and reefs in providing multiple and integrated services" he said.
"Besides meeting necessary defence needs, it is more geared to serve civilian purposes. Rather than affecting freedom of navigation, it will only contribute to joint responses to maritime challenges and to safety of navigation in the SCS," he said.