Chinese general says island building in South China Sea will not affect freedom of navigation

China's Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Fan Changlong delivers a speech at the sixth Xiangshan Forum in Beijing, China, Oct 17, 2015. China's building activities in the South China Sea will not affect freedom of navigation and China will never recklessly resort to use of force, Gen Fan said on Saturday. PHOTO: REUTERS
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in this video still provided by the US Navy on May 21, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's building activities in the South China Sea will not affect freedom of navigation and China will never recklessly resort to use of force, senior Chinese General Fan Changlong said on Saturday (Oct 17), amid tensions over Beijing's building of islands in the disputed waters.

Gen Fan Changlong, one of the vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, which controls the Chinese armed forces and is headed by President Xi Jinping, told a high-level security forum that China had sought to avoid conflict.

"We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues of sovereignty, and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts," Gen Fan told the forum, attended by South-east Asian defence ministers.

Gen Fan reiterated that China's islands "will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea" and said recently completed lighthouses on Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago "have already begun to provide navigation services to all nations".

"We will continue to resolve disputes and differences with directly related parties through friendly consultation and are committed to working with relevant parties to maintain regional security and stability," Gen Fan said.

China's relations with several South-east Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, have been strained over Beijing's increasingly assertive tone on territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing's move last year to step up the creation of artificial islands, which it says are mostly for civilian purposes, has drawn strong criticism from Washington.

The United States says international law prohibits claiming territory around artificial islands built on previously submerged reefs and that the United States military would sail or fly wherever international law allowed.

Beijing, however, denies it has militarised the South China Sea and has warned that it would not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation.

Mr Gary Roughead, the former US chief of naval operations, told the forum the scale of the building of ports and airfields in the seas by China raised legitimate concerns. "I do not see an influx of tourists clamouring to visit these remote outposts," he said.

Some analysts in Washington believe the United States has already decided to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations inside the 12-nautical-mile limits that China claims around islands built on reefs in the Spratly islands.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, also attending the forum, said the United States had briefed Malaysia on these plans, but that he feared getting caught up between two superpowers.

"My concern is unintended, accidental, unintentional incidents on the high seas, especially between two major powers that at the end of the day will end up affecting smaller nations like Malaysia," he told reporters.

China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.

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