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China is guilty of "intimidation and coercion" over its military build-up on disputed islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. defence secretary has said.

Speaking at the same conference, China's Lt Gen He Lei said: "Any irresponsible comments from other countries can not be accepted". "It calls into question China's broader goals".

The South China Sea, a key trade route, is subject to overlapping claims by six countries.

Last month, China's air force landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise in the region, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines.

Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian security summit in Singapore, Mr Mattis said China's actions were created to intimidate and coerce other nations in the region.

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He responded by saying: "The Chinese government and its people strongly oppose arms sale to Taiwan, all kinds of official government contacts to strengthen their ties with Taipei, as well as other acts to harm the "one-China principle". China says it is within its rights to build up defenses on islands in the South China Sea that it believes are its sovereign territory.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, despite overlapping claims by countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. "China's policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes".

Mattis on Saturday referred to that disinvitation as an "initial response" to China, but he did not outline any additional steps that may be taken.

The U.S., he said, "will continue to pursue a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China, cooperation when possible, and competing vigorously where we must".

The comments by Mattis, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, come at a time of increased tension between the two nations in the South China Sea and highlight how President Donald Trump's administration is looking to balance Chinese cooperation on North Korea while dealing with Beijing's activities in the disputed sea.

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The Chinese government and the Chinese people resolutely oppose U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as well as any official contact with Taiwan and upgrading ties with Taiwan in any way, said He Lei, vice president of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. "It's a very shaky foundation when we believe that militarizing features are somehow going to endorse their standing in the world".

"That issue is not on the table here in Singapore on the 12th, nor should it be", Mattis said. "Certainly, we could have had the dispute resolution go in a peaceful way".

The Shangri-La Dialogue comes as the United States and North Korea prepare to hold denuclearization talks in Singapore.

Mattis has tried to avoid weighing in on the summit, deferring questions to the State Department and Trump's national security team.

Mattis only made a glancing reference to North Korea, reiterating that it was a diplomatically led effort and the objective remained the "complete verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". But what's less clear is what Washington is prepared to offer Pyongyang.

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