SINGAPORE: Chinese warships will continue to patrol waters where Beijing has territorial claims, a top general said on Sunday, amid simmering rows with neighbouring countries over the South China Sea and islands controlled by Japan.
Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, defended the patrols as legitimate and said his country’s sovereignty over the areas could not be disputed.
“Why are Chinese warships patrolling in East China Sea and South China Sea? I think we are all clear about this,” Qi told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore.
“Our attitude on East China Sea and South China Sea is that they are in our Chinese sovereignty. We are very clear about that,” he said through an interpreter.
“So the Chinese warships and the patrolling activities are totally legitimate and uncontroversial.”
Qi was responding to a question from a delegate after he gave a speech in which he sought to assure neighbouring countries that China has no hegemonic ambitions.
“China has never taken foreign expansion and military conquering as a state policy,” he said in his speech.
“Although recently hot-spot issues in China’s neighbouring area keep cropping up, we have always held that conflicts and disputes should be properly solved through dialogues, consultations and peaceful negotiations.”
One delegate however said there appeared to be growing regional scepticism over China’s peaceful intentions because it was inconsistent with moves to send naval patrols to waters where other countries have also staked claims.
China is locked in a territorial dispute with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea.
The four Southeast Asian states have partial claims but China says it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters and territories much closer to other countries and thousands of kilometres from the Chinese coast.
China also has a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus, in the East China Sea.
Manila last month protested at what it called the “provocative and illegal presence” of a Chinese warship near Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by Philippine troops.
Among the other moves that have caused alarm were China’s occupation of a shoal close to the Philippines’ main island last year, and the deployment in March of Chinese naval ships to within 80 kilometres (50 miles) of Malaysia’s coast.
Competing claims have for decades made the area — home to rich fishing grounds and vital global shipping lanes and believed to sit atop vast natural gas deposits — one of Asia’s potential military flashpoints.
China and Vietnam fought in 1974 and 1988 for control of islands in battles that left dozens of soldiers dead.
Maritime disputes and the risks of them sparking a military conflict were a key theme during the two-day conference that ended Sunday.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin defended Manila’s move to unilaterally bring its dispute with China before a UN tribunal, while China’s Qi said the matter should be discussed bilaterally.
“We hope that the arbitration tribunal will issue a clarification in accordance with international law that will direct China to respect our sovereign rights,” Gazmin told the same forum Sunday.
Gazmin, a retired general, said Manila hopes the tribunal will also ask China to respect the Philippines’ “jurisdictions over our exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, contigual zone and desist from undertaking unlawful acts that violate our territorial rights”.