MANILA, Philippines — China has every right to deploy troops and build weapons on islands and reefs it claims in the South China Sea, two top-level leaders from Beijing said in response to criticisms of its aggressive militarization of the disputed area.
Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s minister of national defense, told an international security forum in Singapore that China is well within its rights to build defense facilities on its natural and man-made islands in the South China Sea.
“It is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory,” Wei, the first Chinese defense minister to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2011, said Saturday.
He added: “Where there are threats, there is defense. In the face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defense facilities?”
Another Chinese general hit back at “irresponsible” comments on Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance on the South China Sea after US Defense Secretary James Mattis accused the country of coercing and intimidating its neighbors with its military activities in the resource-rich sea.
“Deploying troops and weapons on islands in the South China Sea is within China’s sovereign right to do and allowed by international law,” He Lei, a lieutenant general of the People’s Liberation Army, was quoted as saying in a South China Morning Post report.
He—also the vice president of the Academy of Military Science—drew a parallel between the construction of military outposts in the South China Sea and the decision of late leader Deng Xiaoping to send a PLA garrison to Hong Kong after the island’s handover in 1997 to show Beijing’s sovereignty in the region.
The PLA lieutenant general added: “All irresponsible remarks [on the subject] are an infringement of China’s domestic affairs.”
The comments of Wei and He are considered rare at an international event as they acknowledged China’s plans to place troops and weapons on islands and reefs it claims in the contested waters.
The Philippines claims parts of the South China Sea within its exclusive economic zone and calls it the West Philippine Sea.