BEIJING: Beijing sought to soothe tensions over its South China Sea claims, saying it will avoid the use of force in the region as the US ponders sending warships close to territory claimed by the Asian giant.
Speaking at the Xiangshan regional defence 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 this week, Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said the US would continue to sail wherever international law allowed.
While no American officials spoke at the event, the country’s retired Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead used his time on a morning panel to take China to task for its behaviour.
“The rapid expansion of land features in the vital sea lanes of the South China Sea heightens suspicion and presents the potential for miscalculation,“ he said.
The construction, he added, “raises legitimate questions regarding militarisation”.
“I do not see an influx of tourists clamouring to visit these remote islands,” he said.
The dispute between the two goliaths, the region’s largest military and economic powers, has unnerved members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who are caught in the middle of the standoff.
Speaking to reporters after Fan’s remarks, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the US has briefed him on its plans, but “counterreaction by major powers in the region sometimes is beyond the control of small nations”. — AFP
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