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China is downplaying its aggressive buildup on disputed islands in the South China Sea, including the apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Secretary of State John Kerry this week in Washington.

“China’s deploying necessary, limited defensive facilities on its own territory is not substantively different from the U.S. defending Hawaii,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Monday.

China claims nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea and has claimed an Air Defense Identification Zone over parts of the East China Sea, including directly over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands.

It has brushed aside other countries’ claims to the Spratly and Paracel island chains and refused to be drawn into legal proceedings on the issue. That has led to confrontations with Vietnam and the Philippines in particular.

China has in recent years added about 3,000 acres of landfill to submerged reefs and built at least three runways capable of supporting military aircraft, according to 2015 Pentagon reports. It also has tried to shoo away U.S. warships, which have conducted freedom-of-navigation cruises near the islands, and military planes that have approached from the air.

“It’s this that is the biggest cause of the South China Sea’s militarization,” Hua said. “We hope the U.S. does not confuse right and wrong on this issue or practice double standards.”

Satellite photos captured by ImageSat International on Feb. 14 appear to show two batteries of missile systems and radar on China-controlled Woody Island, which led to the U.S. accusing China of raising tensions in the area. Beijing has not confirmed or denied the missiles’ presence.

Hua said Washington should not use the existence of military facilities on the islands as a “pretext to make a fuss.”

“The U.S. is not involved in the South China Sea dispute, and this is not and should not become a problem between China and the U.S.,” Hua said.

But an agreement between Washington and Manila to allow the U.S. to base some supplies and forces in the Philippines will put American forces very close to some of the islands. And Washington wants to ensure there are no restrictions on commerce in the South China Sea, an area where $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transits annually.

Also expected to be on the agenda for Wang’s meetings Wednesday and Thursday with Kerry is North Korea, which has fomented another crisis in Northeast Asia by carrying out its fourth underground nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a multistage rocket launch a month later.

While Pyongyang says its nuclear weapons are solely for defensive purposes and its space program is peaceful, it also wants to have missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S. with nuclear warheads.

Washington wants China to use its influence on North Korea to rein in the renegade state and agree to — and enforce — tough U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. Beijing has focused instead on pursuing negotiations with the North, worried that exerting too much pressure on the poverty-wracked country could lead to regime collapse, causing a flood of refugees and the possible rise of a pro-U.S. government.

alexander.paul@stripes.com

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