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China defends naval actions

June 6, 2011

General Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister, has rejected criticism that his country was acting belligerently in the South China Sea, saying China was pursuing a “peaceful rise”.

“You say our actions do not match our words. I certainly do not agree,” Gen Liang replied to critics at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile Asia defence forum in Singapore.

Speaking days after Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, Gen Liang denied that China was threatening security in the strategically important and energy-rich disputed waters, saying “freedom of navigation has never been impeded”.

He was the first Chinese defence minister to participate in the forum, which was attended by Robert Gates, US defence secretary, and other Asian defence ministers. It was Gen Liang’s first big international speech.

Mr Gates expressed “increasing concerns” about China’s recent maritime behaviour. But when asked if Beijing was undermining its “peaceful rise” claim, he replied: “I don’t think it has risen to that level yet.”

Hundreds of Vietnamese protested at the weekend in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City against perceived Chinese aggression. Hanoi recently said Chinese coast guard vessels had sabotaged an oil exploration ship.

Last week Manila said China had unloaded construction materials on a reef claimed by the Philippines, raising fears over a regional agreement to avoid actions that “complicate or escalate disputes”.

Despite the incidents , Mr Gates struck a softer tone on China than at the 2010 forum, reflecting the recent improvement in Sino-US relations. Military ties have improved following a year of little significant contact after the US announced an arms sale to Taiwan.

John McCain, US Republican senator and former presidential candidate, said Gen Liang had been “very conciliatory” but more “hardline” over the South China Sea during a previous meeting in China.

Mr Gates said the US would maintain a strong military presence in the region, including sending a new combat ship to Singapore. He dismissed suggestions that US fiscal woes coupled with rising Chinese military budgets meant the US presence would ebb.

“I will bet you $100 that five years from now the United States’ influence in this region is as strong if not stronger than it is today,” he said.

Notwithstanding the better Sino-US ties, Washington has been urging China to press Pyongyang to act less belligerently, after North Korea last year sank a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island killing several people. But Gen Liang said China was doing “much more than what the outside world may expect” without giving detail.

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