China has warned the United States not to make any rash comments about its islands in the South China Sea, urging the White House to mind the facts and not interfere in the territorial dispute.
"The United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.
"We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea," Hua said.
Hua was responding to comments made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer who said Washington intended to stop Beijing’s “takeover” of the South China Sea.
Speaking on Monday at the first daily press briefing of the Trump administration, Spicer said the US would “make sure that we protect our interests” in the South China Sea.
"It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country," said Spicer.
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have territorial claims in the waters which are also an important trade route.
In response to Spicer's comments, China’s spokeswoman continued to say that Beijing's sovereignty over its territories in the South China Sea, artificial islands included, was "irrefutable" .
She however added that Beijing was also dedicated to protecting freedom of navigation in the international waters and was open to talks with nations directly involved in the regional dispute.
"Our actions in the South China Sea are reasonable and fair. No matter what changes happen in other countries, what they say or what they want to do, China's resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change,” the spokeswoman said.
Spicer’s remarks followed similar comments by new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who said during his Senate confirmation hearing that Beijing should not be given access to the disputed territory.
Tillerson said the White House needed to send China a “clear signal” that such activities had to stop and that its access to such territories was “not going to be allowed”.
The comments prompted a strong response from Chinese media, warning that any attempt to prevent China accessing its territories in the region risked sparking a “large-scale war”.