China will defend its maritime rights: Defence minister

WASHINGTON, DC (AFP) - Military relations between China and the United States (US) are steadily improving but Beijing remains determined to defend its maritime rights, the country's defence minister said on Monday during a US visit.

Although General Chang Wanquan and his US 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," Mr Chang told a joint news conference at the Pentagon.

"However, no one should fantasise 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.

Mr Hagel restated the US 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, US defence officials have touted progress in defence 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 emphasised today was that a sustained, substantive military-to-military relationship is an important pillar for this strong bilateral relationship," Mr Hagel said.

And Mr Chang said defence ties are "gaining a good momentum".

Before Monday's talks, Mr Chang met the head of US 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 US 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 fuelling 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.

Mr Chang said the strategic shift towards Asia had raised some concerns in China, and that more US-led military exercises "further complicated the situation in the region". The general cautioned that the US 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 US has alleged the Chinese military and government of backing some digital espionage against defence firms and other US targets.

Mr Chang said his country opposed any "arms race" in the cyber realm, as well as any "double standard", amid recent revelations of massive electronic surveillance carried out by America's National Security Agency.

"Regarding how to solve the cybersecurity issue, I believe it requires the common exploration and cooperation between China and United States rather than ungrounded accusation or suspicion," he said.

Mr Chang's trip to the US follows a visit to China earlier this by the top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey, who took part in Monday's talks.

And Mr Hagel said on Monday he had accepted an invitation to travel to China next year, his first trip there as Pentagon chief.

Mr Hagel said he was looking forward to meeting Chang again next week in Brunei at a gathering of defence ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

The US defence secretary said his trip to the region also would include stops in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

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