Chinese military reaches out amid South China Sea tensions

(From AP)

As expectations grow that the US Navy will directly challenge Beijing’s South China Sea claims, China is engaging in some serious image-building for its own military by hosting two international security forums this week.

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea

The events kick off Friday with an informal meeting of defense ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations known as ASEAN — four of which exercise claims to seas and islands in the South China Sea that clash with Beijing’s own. It is the first time China has hosted such a meeting.

That will be followed by the Xiangshan Forum, at which analysts, military leaders and others from around the globe will grapple with Asian-Pacific security, maritime issues and anti-terrorism.

“China wants to use these sorts of forums to promote China’s views, explain China’s policies and improve China’s security image,” said regional security expert Li Mingjiang of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Because the meeting is in Beijing, it would be hard for any country to confront China over the South China Sea,” Li said. “There’s also a lack of solidarity among ASEAN countries over the issue.”

To defuse concerns among ASEAN members, China needs to turn gatherings such as the Xiangshan Forum into venues for “a genuine two-way conversation,” rather than simply attempt to impose its own views, wrote US Defense Department analyst Kim Fassler in a recent paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Fassler wrote that this includes “urging Beijing to explore how its actions contribute to narratives of China as an aggressor instead of a regional leader.”

Sailing plan not ‘provocative’

United States naval vessels sailing through international waters in the South China Sea, including areas claimed by China or other nations, is not provocative and should surprise no one, the US Navy’s most senior uniformed officer said Thursday.

China claims most of the South China Sea and has warned it will not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation.

The United States says international law prohibits claiming territory around artificial islands built on previously submerged reefs.

“It should not come as a surprise to anybody that we will exercise freedom of navigation wherever international law allows,” John Richardson, the US chief of naval operations, told reporters in Tokyo.

“I don’t see how this can be interpreted as provocative.”

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

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Tuesday the US military would sail or fly wherever international law allowed.

Richardson, who was promoted to his post last month, is in Japan at the start of a 12-day trip around Asia and Europe. Starting in Japan, he said, showed the importance of the alliance between the two countries.

China on Wednesday denied its island building in the South China Sea would “militarize” the area, after US and Australian defense and foreign ministers expressed concern during their annual meeting in Boston.

“China’s construction on the Nansha Islands serves mostly civilian purposes, helping deliver our international responsibilities and obligations and providing more public good,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing.

The lighthouses on Huayang and Chigua reefs went into operation on Oct. 10 and have significantly improved navigation safety in the South China Sea.

“Some countries flex their military muscles and hold frequent large-scale drills with their allies in the South China Sea, which is the most important factor militarizing the waters. China expresses serious concern over this,” she said.

China’s military deployment is “necessary, limited and defense-oriented,” Hua said.

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