China's construction work in the South China Sea will improve navigation and not affect freedom of navigation as feared, said Central Military Commission vice-chair Fan Changlong yesterday, as he stressed that China's projects are mostly intended for civil purposes.
Noting concerns over the speedy building in the South-east Asian maritime hub over the past year, he cited how the newly built lighthouses on the Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago would provide navigation assistance to ships of all countries.
"We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues of sovereignty, and have done our outmost to avoid unexpected conflicts," said General Fan at the Xiangshan Forum, a regional security dialogue that began last Friday.
But retired US Admiral Gary Roughead, a former naval operations chief who spoke in a panel discussion after Gen Fan left the event, said the scale of construction without commensurate commercial interests raises legitimate questions about militarisation.
Satellite images of the islands showed as many as three runways that could accommodate fighter jets.
"I do not see an influx of tourists clamouring to visit these remote outposts," added Adm Roughead.
His remarks were rebutted by several Chinese delegates who said the United States was the one militarising the region by posting more troops in Asia.
Gen Fan is believed to be the most senior Chinese military official ever to speak at the Xiangshan Forum, which began in 2006 and was held once every two years.
China last year upgraded the forum, which involved mostly officials and academics, to an annual affair and invited defence ministers, as part of a drive to improve interactions with regional defence and security personnel and also to ensure its voice on security issues would be heard accurately.
This year's meeting drew some 500 participants from 60 countries, including 16 defence ministers. Fourteen countries, including the US, Japan, Britain and Indonesia, that did not send delegations last year did so this year.
Kor Kian Beng