China has urged the United States to stop sending ships and planes to the South China Sea and to respect its core interests, amid a domestic debate on whether a US bomber had indeed flown unintentionally near a Chinese-built artificial island.
"The world is facing multifaceted challenges and needs multi-party co-operation to handle that," Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call on Sunday.
"While the US is seeking Chinese co-operation, it also should respect China's core interests and major concerns," he said.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement yesterday said both men also discussed issues such as the Syrian crisis and Washington's plan to sell weapons to Taiwan.
Chinese media are questioning US officials' explanation that a B-52 bomber had unintentionally flown within two nautical miles of Cuarteron Reef, which is part of the disputed Spratly islands.
The Wall Street Journal reported the Dec 10 incident last Friday, quoting US officials as saying bad weather caused the pilot to fly off course.
China's Defence Ministry immediately denounced it as a serious military provocation.
It was likely the closest that a US plane or ship had got to a Beijing-claimed island since the US military exercised what it called its freedom of navigation (FON) rights in October to challenge China's territorial claims around the islands.
A China Daily editorial yesterday said it was "only natural that many Chinese do not feel convinced by the Pentagon's explanation", given recent FON missions by the US.
"Hence, China is fully justified in demanding that the Pentagon seriously delve into the incident, produce a convincing explanation and take measures to prevent such overflights in future," it added.
But some Chinese observers such as Nanjing University analyst Zhu Feng see no need for the US to shy away from calling it an FON operation to show its resolve to challenge China's territorial claims.
In an editorial, the Global Times said the incident would "undoubtedly propel China to accelerate militarising its newly built islands and make them capable of coping with direct military threat from the US", including deployment of its fighter jets.
The tabloid, which is linked to the Communist Party, also criticised Singapore and the Philippines for fuelling tensions by supporting US military deployment in the region.
"The South-east Asian countries have no reason to oppose China's counter-measures against US provocations. Instead, countries such as the Philippines and Singapore should realise that their support for US military bases contributes to regional tension," the editorial said.
Earlier this month, Singapore agreed to host US P-8 Poseidon spy planes on a rotational basis - a move described as consistent with its belief in the importance of US engagement in the region.
China expressed concern about the move announced on Dec 8 but did not criticise Singapore directly. Neither did any Chinese state media until the Global Times editorial yesterday.
Peking University international relations analyst Jia Qingguo said the Global Times tends to take a different stance on certain issues, which "may not be in line with the government's position".
"Still, it does reflect the view of many Chinese that Singapore's move, which supports the US military presence in the region, would hurt China's interests," he added.