China will never “recklessly” resort to the use of force in the South China Sea, a senior Chinese general said Saturday, amid tensions over Beijing’s building of islands in the disputed waters.

Vietnam has protested against Chinese lighthouse projects on disputed isles
Vietnam has protested against Chinese lighthouse projects on disputed isles

China’s relations with several Southeast 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.

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,” Fan told the forum, attended by Southeast Asian defense ministers.

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,” Fan said.

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

Beijing, however, denies it has militarized 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.

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.

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

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