China blasts US sanctions over South China Sea construction, vows 'firm' response

Portions of the South China Sea are claimed by a number of countries

China is ripping the U.S. Thursday after sanctions were imposed on officials and companies for their involvement in building artificial islands to enforce Beijing’s territorial claims in the hotly contested South China Sea.

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The penalties, which the U.S. Commerce Department announced Wednesday, place an unspecified number of Chinese officials and 24 companies on an “entity list” that limits access to American exports without government permission.

“The relevant U.S. acts grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs, violate international law and relevant international norms, which are totally out of hegemonic logic and power politics,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday.

Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near south China's Hainan Island and Paracel Islands in July 2016. (AP/Xinhua)

Zhao added, “China will take firm measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of its enterprises and individuals,” but gave no indication of how it might retaliate.

The sanctions add to conflict over control of the sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The U.S. rejects China's claim to virtually the entire waterway, portions of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other governments.

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The Commerce Department said the companies were targeted for their role in building the artificial islands through dredging and other activities that cause environmental damage and infringe on other nations’ claims.

“The relevant construction China carried out on its own territory is entirely within the scope of sovereignty and has nothing to do with militarization,” Zhao countered. “There is no reason for the U.S. side to impose illegal sanctions on Chinese enterprises and individuals because of their participation in relevant domestic construction.”

China is currently holding live-fire military exercises in both the South and East China Seas, and a Hong Kong newspaper reported Thursday that the military test-fired two missiles into the South China Sea, including one seen as specifically designed to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier.

The DF-26B and DF-21D missiles fired Wednesday targeted an area between the southern island province of Hainan and the Paracel Islands, the South China Morning Post reported, citing unidentified sources close to the Chinese military.

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The Ministry of Defense said the People’s Liberation Army conducted military exercises in the area but gave no confirmation of missiles being fired or other details.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.