By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China embarked upon extensive land reclamation efforts at five outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands last year, adding huge amounts of terrain to bolster its civil and military presence in an area claimed by rivals, a new Pentagon report said on Friday.
Chinese building and land-filling efforts have accelerated this year, with the total acreage added to the outposts in the South China Sea growing from 500 in December to about 2,000 today, a U.S. defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But China's defence ministry rebutted the Pentagon on Saturday, saying the report "seriously damaged mutual trust between the two nations", and that "ignored facts" and "played up stereotypes about the 'China military threat'".
The Spratly chain, where China has built at least one previously submerged reef into an island, is claimed by at least three other countries: the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia.
"We do not support South China Sea land reclamation efforts by any party," the U.S. defence official said. "However, the pace and scale of China's land reclamation in recent years dwarfs that of any other claimant. China has expanded the acreage on outposts it occupies by some 400 times."
By comparison, Vietnam has reclaimed some 60 acres of land closer to home in the South China Sea area since 2009, the official said.
China's Ministry of National Defence said in a statement on its website: "China adheres to the road of peaceful development.
"China's actions to safeguard her legal rights and interests with regards to her sovereignty and maritime rights are legitimate, reasonable, legal and above reproach. No one should make irresponsible comments."
A MODERNISING CHINESE ARMY
Beijing's activity in the South China Sea was one of several security issues raised on Friday in the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments.
The report, which covered the 2014 calendar year, also raised concerns about cyber intrusions, a growing submarine force and China's lack of transparency about its military intentions.
China used its cyber-espionage abilities to target U.S. defence-related networks last year on a number of occasions, the report said, successfully penetrating contractors for U.S. Transportation Command about 20 times to steal information.
Beijing has placed a priority on modernizing its submarine force and now has 62: five nuclear attack submarines, four nuclear ballistic missile submarines and 53 diesel attack submarines, the report said.
That compares to 71 operated by the United States. The Chinese force is expected to grow to between 69 and 78 by 2020.
China has manifested "more forceful rhetoric and confrontational behaviour" in dealing with rival claimants for the region's resources, the report said, including blocking resupply missions to a Philippine outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal and sending a drilling rig into waters claimed by Vietnam.
China's land reclamation in the Spratlys will enable it to have "persistent civil-military bases of operation to enhance its presence significantly in disputed areas," the report said.
Beijing continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization programme.
China has the "most rapidly maturing" space programme in the world, is the only country other than the United States with two concurrent stealth fighter programs and has road mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach most of the continental United States, it said.
The military modernization "has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages," the report said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Andrea Shalal in Washington and Koh Gui Qing in Beijing; editing by Clelia Oziel)