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Despite setback, China encourages contacts with US military

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BEIJING –  China's Defense Ministry on Thursday said it hoped for continued exchanges with the American military despite being disinvited from a major U.S.-sponsored naval exercise this summer.

Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang also said the sides remain in contact over a possible visit to China by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at a date yet to be announced.

"A sound and healthy relationship is in the common interests of the two militaries," Ren said at a monthly news briefing. "We hope the United States, together with China, can make efforts to implement the important consensus ... so as to build a healthy and stable relationship."

The Pentagon last week withdrew its invitation for China to participate in the multinational naval exercise in what it called "an initial response" to China's militarization of the South China Sea.

The Pentagon cited strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested areas in the Spratly Islands. It called on China to remove these systems.

Despite strong mutual suspicions, the U.S. had included China in the past two versions of the naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or RimPac, in 2014 and 2016.

China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in the South China Sea that is crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.

While the U.S. takes no formal position on sovereignty claims in the area, it has strongly criticized China's construction of military installations atop man-made islands and insisted on the Navy's right to sail wherever legal under international law.

On Sunday, China said it dispatched warships to identify and warn off a pair of U.S. Navy vessels sailing near island claims in the Paracel Islands, north of the Spratlys.

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