China's defense minister called for renewed efforts to "safeguard regional peace and stability" but largely avoided discussing controversial territorial disputes Friday as Beijing hosted a meeting of Southeast Asian defense chiefs.
Chinese leaders are not expected to publicly address the conflicting land claims during the informal gathering of defense ministers from the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
Several ASEAN nations, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam, have overlapping territorial claims with China in the South China Sea, but Beijing has been reluctant to use such forums to discuss the matter.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan did not mention the disputes in his opening statement, but instead called for Southeast Asian nations to push for better relations and more efforts to address security challenges, such as terrorism.
"China desires cooperation and dialogue with ASEAN defense bodies to together safeguard regional peace and stability and join hands to create a good security environment," Chang said in the first few minutes of the speech that was open to the media.
Chang also proposed holding joint maritime accidental encounter and search-and-rescue drills in the South China Sea with members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) next year, the Defense Ministry's official microblog said, according to Reuters.
Lower regional tensions
China has been working with ASEAN for years on a long-delayed code of conduct to help lower tensions in the South China Sea.
Throughout the process, China has become more aggressive about defending its maritime claims in the contested waterway.
Most significantly, China has been building artificial islands and equipping some of them with state-of-the-art military facilities in an effort to bolster its claims to the areas.
Recent reports suggest the U.S. military could within weeks sail warships inside the 22-kilometer zones of the islands in what many see as a direct challenge to China's claims.
On Thursday, a top U.S. Navy official said such a move should not be considered provocative. Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. chief of naval operations, said the "freedom of navigation operations" would be consistent with international law.
"I don't see how this can be interpreted as provocative or anything. They are just steaming in international waters," Richardson told reporters in Tokyo. "So I think from our standpoint, we would see these as part of our normal business as a global navy."
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who has called on Beijing to stop the construction, this week insisted the U.S. will "fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," noting that the South China Sea is not an exception to that policy.
China's Foreign Ministry has warned against engaging in "provocative behavior" in the South China Sea, and vowed it will "never allow any country to violate" its territorial waters or airspace.
The Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, whose opinions often reflect government opinion, said in an editorial China "absolutely must not permit the U.S. side's warships and planes to behave unscrupulously near islands and reefs claimed by China.
"China's naval and air capacities must prepare, watch for U.S. military provocations and respond accordingly with countermeasures," the editorial added.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, a resource-rich area through which $5 trillion worth of goods move across each year.
The U.S. said it does not take a position on the territorial disputes, but has condemned what it sees as China's increasingly aggressive behavior toward its neighbors in the area.
Washington has also developed closer military ties with many Asian countries, including some that have competing territorial claims with China.