China will defend seas: defense minister

By Daniel De Luce, AFP

WASHINGTON–Military relations between China and the United States are steadily improving but Beijing remains determined to defend its maritime rights, the country’s defense minister said Monday during a U.S. visit. Although General Chang Wanquan and his U.S. counterpart, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, struck an optimistic tone after more than three hours of talks, the Chinese official made clear Beijing would not make concessions when it comes to its core interests. “We always insist that related disputes be solved through dialogue and negotiation,” Chang told a joint news conference at the Pentagon. “However, no one should fantasize that China would barter away our core interests, and no one should underestimate our will and determination in defending our territory, sovereignty and maritime rights,” he said. China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, despite rival claims from other countries in the region, which have accused Beijing of staging a gradual takeover of disputed islets. And Japan and China are locked in a bitter feud over which country has sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea. Hagel restated the U.S. stance on the issue, saying Washington remained neutral over sovereignty questions but insisted that disagreements be resolved peacefully, “without coercion.” In the run-up to Monday’s meeting, U.S. defense officials have touted progress in defense ties with Beijing after years of false starts, crediting the shift in part to China’s new leader, President Xi Jinping. “One of the themes we emphasized today was that a sustained, substantive military-to-military relationship is an important pillar for this strong bilateral relationship,” Hagel said. And Chang said defense ties are “gaining a good momentum.”

Before Monday’s talks, Chang met the head of U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii on Friday and the head of Northern Command on Saturday. His visit follows a series of high-level visits, exchanges and joint initiatives, including plans for Chinese naval forces to take part in a major U.S. exercise next year.

This weekend, Chinese naval forces will take part in an anti-piracy exercise with US ships in the Gulf of Aden. With China’s rapid economic growth fueling an expansion of military might, the US military has sought to forge a dialogue with the Chinese top brass to avoid any miscalculations or incidents on the high seas. Washington also has pursued a strategic “rebalance” towards the Asia-Pacific region to counter Beijing’s rising influence, particularly in the South China Sea.

Chang said the strategic shift towards Asia had raised some concerns in China, and that more U.S.-led military exercises “further complicated the situation in the region.” The general cautioned that the U.S. tilt to Asia should not be focused on any one nation. “We would like to have this rebalancing strategy balance on different countries as well because the essence of rebalancing is balance,” he said. The talks also covered cyber security, a contentious issue as the United States has alleged the Chinese military and government of backing some digital espionage against defense firms and other U.S. targets.