By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Defence Ministry expressed regret on Thursday after the United States withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major U.S.-hosted naval drill, saying that closing the door does not promote mutual trust and cooperation.
The Rim of the Pacific exercise, known as RIMPAC and previously attended by China, is billed as the world's largest international maritime exercise and held every two years in Hawaii in June and July.
RIMPAC enabled the armed forces of the world's two largest economies to directly engage with each other. It was viewed by both countries as a way to ease tensions and reduce the risk of miscalculation should they meet under less friendly circumstances.
The Pentagon said the withdrawal of the invitation was in response to what it sees as Beijing's militarization of islands in the disputed South China Sea, a strategic waterway claimed in large part by Beijing.
In a brief statement, China's Defence Ministry said the United States had "ignored the facts and hyped up the so-called 'militarization' of the South China Sea", using it as an excuse to uninvite China.
"This decision by the United States is not constructive. Closing the door to communication at any time is not conducive toward promoting mutual trust and communication between the Chinese and U.S. militaries," it added.
China's island-building program in the South China Sea has sparked concern around the region and in Washington about Chinese intentions.
China says it has every right to build what it calls necessary defensive facilities on its own territory.
(For a graphic on the Chinese buildup, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2J3cWne)
Over the weekend China's air force landed bombers on islands in the sea as part of a training exercise, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines.
The ministry reiterated that its building of defense facilities was to protect the country's sovereignty and legitimate rights, and had nothing to do with militarization.
"The United States has no right to make irresponsible remarks about this," it added.
"Being invited or not cannot change China's will to play a role in protecting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and cannot shake China's firm determination to defend its sovereignty and security interests".
It is in both countries interests to develop healthy military ties, and China hopes the United States keeps the broader picture in mind, abandon its "zero sum" mentality and appropriately handle disputes, the ministry said.
Pentagon officials have long complained that China has not been candid enough about its rapid military build-up and using South China Sea islands to gather intelligence in the region.
In an editorial on its website, widely-read Chinese state-run tabloid the Global Times said there was no way China could trade in its interests in the South China Sea for access to the exercise.
"If the U.S. military increases its activities in the South China Sea, then our side will need to further strengthen its military deployments there," it wrote.
Chinese officials have accused Washington of viewing their country in suspicious, "Cold War" terms.
Speaking at a separate briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China has sovereign rights in the South China Sea and it is not realistic for the United States to use this kind of action to try to coerce Beijing.
The United States has dispatched warships to disputed areas of the South China Sea in a bid to challenge China's extensive sovereignty claims in the territory, which is subject to various claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
(Additional reporting by Zhang Min and Michael Martina; Editing by Darren Schuettler)