BEIJING: Beijing sought to soothe tensions over its South China Sea claims Saturday, saying it will avoid the use of force in the region as the US ponders sending war ships close to territory claimed by the Asian giant.
Speaking at the Xiangshan regional defense forum in Beijing, Fan Changlong, vice-chair of China’s Central Military Commission, pledged that the country would “never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues bearing on sovereignty.”
“We have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts,” he added.
The US says that China’s transformation of South China Sea reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities presents a threat to freedom of navigation, and defence officials have hinted they may soon use naval forces to test Chinese claims.
But Fan said that the projects were mainly intended for civilian use and “will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”
“Instead, they will enable us to provide better public services to aid navigation and production in the South China Sea.”
The argument is one Beijing has made many times before, but satellite images of the islands published by the US think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies have shown as many as three runways on the islands that could accommodate fighter jets, raising concerns about China’s true intentions.
Speaking in Washington earlier this week, Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said the US would continue to sail wherever international law allowed.
Following Fan’s remarks, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, whose country is a claimant in the South China Sea, said the “statement was reassuring to us all,” but cautioned that the best way to address concerns was the establishment of a code of conduct for claimants in the region.
Hishammuddin was one of several defense chiefs from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) attending the forum.
The group includes Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which have rival South China Sea claims, as does non-Asean member Taiwan.
Vietnam has repeatedly accused China of ramming its fishing boats as they ply local waters. The Philippines has taken its dispute to a United Nations tribunal, infuriating Beijing.
On Friday, China gathered the bloc’s military heads in Beijing for a first of its kind informal summit that included sideline discussions on the frictions in the South China Sea.
The Xiangshan Forum is a security dialogue China has recently upgraded as part of a broader effort to increase its global influence.
The conference is seen as a potential competitor to Singapore’s showpiece Shangri-La Dialogue, which attracts top international military officials and experts to the city-state each spring.
Vietnam’s defense minister will address maritime security issues during a panel Sunday.
The Xiangshan, or Fragrant Hills, conference comes as tensions rise between Washington and Beijing, the region’s two largest economic and military powers, over the latter’s construction of artificial islands in disputed South China Sea waters.
US officials have signaled they may soon send ships by the islands, challenging Chinese sovereignty claims in a strategically crucial area that hosts vital shipping lanes — and Beijing has said it would “firmly oppose” such a move.
Five other countries in the region have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea — four of them members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — and the disputes have sometimes spilled over into confrontations as vessels from the competing countries spar over fishing grounds and resource extraction.
Beijing offered to hold joint military exercises with ASEAN members next year in the South China Sea, the defense ministry said on its official Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.
China already participates in military drills with several of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
The conference, the sixth of its kind, will be attended by 60 official delegations and 130 scholars, according to organizers.
It is part of China’s broader effort to increase its international influence, which has also seen the creation of the multi-billion-dollar Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The event will give Beijing “a louder voice,” according to a comment piece in the state-run China Daily newspaper, which added that it will help correct characterizations of China as “aggressive.”
In the past, that gathering has served as a forum for Western officials to dress Beijing down on its behavior in the South China Sea, something less likely to occur on home turf.