China Not Seeking Conflict in South China Sea, Admiral Says

China will not subjugate its national interests, Admiral Sun Jianguo told a regional defense forum in Singapore, even as he painted a picture of a country willing to cooperate on matters including the disputed South China Sea.

“China strives to play a constructive role in international affairs with an objective and impartial position and will never depend on or subjugate itself to any external forces,” Sun said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter used his address at the forum to single out China as a source of instability.

The two speeches represented a toning down of the rhetoric from last year’s forum, where then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got into a public spat with a Chinese general. That’s even as tensions in the South China Sea have risen, with China parking weapons on a reclaimed reef and warning ships and planes from other countries away from the area. The U.S. has stepped up its patrols of the waters.

Sun focused the bulk of his speech on setting out China’s collaboration in the region, calling the country a “reliable friend and sincere partner” of developing countries and speaking of a shift away from the “zero sum” game of the Cold War era of great power relations, with conflict replaced by cooperation. “We will not want to see chaos in this region, even less will we create troubles in this region,” he said.

There is no change to China’s interest in safeguarding the freedom of navigation, Sun said, and the country wants a peaceful resolution of disputes in the waters that are also claimed by smaller Southeast Asian states like Vietnam and the Philippines. The area contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and may hold large energy resources.

‘Chinese Interests’

Sun’s speech was a shift from China’s strategy at last year’s forum to be “very confrontational, staunchly defending Chinese interests, screaming,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They tried a different strategy this year,” she said. “I think they came in with a strategy to not be confrontational.”

China’s reclamation work is in line with international norms and is about improving conditions on the reefs, said Sun, who is deputy chief of the general staff at the People’s Liberation Army. That’s even as Admiral Harry Harris -- now the head of U.S. Pacific Command -- recently described the building activity as a “great wall of sand”.

‘Great Restraint’

“China has exercised enormous restraint, making positive contributions to peace and stability of the region and the world at large,” Sun said. “The situation in the South China Sea is, on the whole, peaceful and stable and there’s never been an issue with the freedom of navigation.”

Chinese officials have described their construction as largely aimed at civilian objectives such as search-and-rescue operations. Still, the U.S. has detected two mobile artillery pieces on one of China’s reclaimed reefs in the Spratlys, Brent Colburn, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on May 28 in Singapore.

“One country has gone much further and much faster than any other,” Carter said in his speech to the forum on Saturday. “And that’s China.”

The defense secretary said the island-building raises the risk of conflict in the fast-growing region. The U.S. had “deep concerns about any party that attempts to undermine the status quo and generate instability there, whether by force, coercion, or simply by creating irreversible facts on the ground, in the air, or in the water,” he said.

Air Zone

Carter repeated his call for an “immediate halt” to additional island-building and militarization of existing formations. The Pentagon chief insisted the U.S. “has every right to be involved” in the region, rejecting Chinese claims that it is meddling far from home.

Admiral Sun said whether China establishes an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea depends “on whether our security in the air and maritime area will be threatened and to what extent.”

“The situation in the South China Sea has been on the whole peaceful and stable, there is no reason for people to play up this issue.”

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