QINGDAO, China (Reuters) - China will not “swallow the bitter pill” of ceding its sovereign rights to others, a senior military official told foreign naval leaders on Wednesday, as the country takes an increasingly assertive approach to guarding its maritime territory.
“No country should expect China to swallow the bitter pill of our sovereignty, national security or development interests being compromised,” said Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
The commission is China’s top military council, chaired by President Xi Jinping.
Fan, who met U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this month in Beijing, made the remarks to delegates at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in the coastal city of Qingdao, where naval leaders from more than 20 countries were meeting.
He also sought to assuage fears that China’s rise as a naval power posed a threat to other nations.
“Some people worry that China becoming a strong maritime power means a new maritime hegemony that will harm regional stability and global peace. Such worries are completely unnecessary,” Fan said.
“Never will China follow the path that some major countries took to pursue maritime hegemony and colonization of other countries, or exploitation of their resources.”
China’s modernizing navy has taken an increasingly assertive stance in guarding what it sees as its sovereign maritime territory in the East China and South China Seas.
Fan added that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would work to take on more maritime responsibility.
“The PLA will actively participate with a cooperative spirit and undertake more responsibility and obligations for a harmonious ocean,” he said.
The conference on Tuesday approved a maritime communications deal meant to ensure that accidental naval altercations do not develop into a conflict. Signatories, including China, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia, agreed to the framework, which had been in the works for more than a decade.
Delegates from Western and Asian countries said the deal was not intended to resolve territorial disputes, including those between China and its neighbors.
The navy chiefs from China and Japan had a 15-minute exchange during a ceremony at the conference, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported, a rare meeting amid tensions between the two countries over territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
“Given the current state of Japanese-Chinese relations, it is good that we were able to talk to each other,” Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, said of the meeting on Monday with PLA navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli, according to Kyodo.
“We both agreed on the importance of the code of behavior.”
Earlier this week, Chinese media quoted a navy spokesman as saying that the commander of the navy would refuse to meet Japanese military officials at the conference “in view of the wrong words and deeds by the Japanese leaders”.
Naval leaders on Wednesday expressed hope that the voluntary agreement - essentially a “rules of the road” for communication at sea - would be implemented.
“Each of us will choose freely whether we decide to employ it or not aboard naval or air assets. I do hope all of us will use it in a very short time frame,” said Rear Admiral Anne Cullerre, commander of French maritime forces in the Pacific.
Chinese delegates say the agreement will have no impact on China’s maritime patrols in disputed waters.
According to the minutes of the 2012 symposium in Kuala Lumpur, China was alone in opposing the agreement, known as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
China objected because it viewed the word “code” in the title as “a legal term with binding force”, Chinese Vice Admiral Ding Yiping said at the time.
Ding had also objected to English being the primary language of communication as outlined in the document.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING, Editing by Ron Popeski