China and Asean are exploring having a joint maritime exercise next year, Senior Colonel Zhou Bo of China's Defence Ministry said.
Beijing had proposed the idea last year at the China-Asean Defence Ministers' Informal Meeting in Laos. It aims to build mutual trust between China and Asean, several of whose members have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea.
The director of his ministry's centre for international security cooperation told a panel at the Shangri-La Dialogue that China also stands ready to explore the setting up of a China-Asean defence communication link.
"We believe all the consultations, dialogues and cooperation have played an important role in promoting maritime security and avoiding maritime conflict," he said.
Also on the panel were Vietnam's deputy minister of public security Bui Van Nam, Japan's Vice-Chief of Staff Kazuaki Sumida, and Rear-Admiral Donald Gabrielson, commander of the US Navy's Logistics Group Western Pacific. All stressed the importance of peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for rule of law.
Senior Colonel Zhou said the East and South China Seas situation is stable, with "no realistic threat of a massive conflict at sea". Reducing or avoiding military activities that could come across as unfriendly or hostile is the most direct and effective way of avoiding a conflict, he added.
"We hope those countries who claim that they do not have a position on the issue of the South China Sea, and that they do not take sides, don't conduct joint patrols or exercises in sensitive waters to add tension," he said.
Asked about militarisation of islands, he said China is only expanding its land, as was its right, and had "never threatened to use force against anybody".
He asked: Isn't the frequent sailing of US ships in Chinese territorial waters militarisation?
Said Rear-Admiral Gabrielson: "It's interesting that China says they're not militarising islands they're adding military equipment to, but the United States is militarising an area that we've been operating in longer than anyone in this room has been alive."
Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh