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State Councilor and Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe slammed foreign militaries on Sunday for destabilizing the South China Sea under the pretext of freedom of navigation.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Wei said the situation in the South China Sea is becoming more stable thanks to the common efforts of countries in the region.
However, there are always people trying to gain advantage by stirring up troubles in the region, he said.
Wei said more than 100,000 ships sail through the South China Sea each year, and none has ever been threatened. "The problem, however, is that in recent years some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles, in the name of freedom of navigation," he said. "These large-scale shows of force and offensive operations in the region are the most serious destabilizing and uncertain factors in the South China Sea."
As a result, it is countries in the region that suffer the most from a destabilized South China Sea. "Aren"t there enough examples of some big countries intervening in regional affairs, making trouble, then walking away and leaving a mess behind?" Wei said.
China and Southeast Asian countries have made good progress in negotiating the code of conduct in the region, Wei said. "We welcome constructive suggestions from all countries. But these parties should not underestimate the wisdom and ability of regional countries to properly handle differences and maintain peace."
As for accusations of China militarizing its islands and reefs in the South China Sea, Wei said it is the legitimate right of a sovereign state to engage in construction on its own territory.
"China built limited defense facilities on the islands and reefs for self-defense," he said. "Where there are threats, there are defenses. Faced with heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defense facilities?"
On Saturday, United States Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan accused China of undermining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and militarizing islands in the region.
Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, director of the Center for Security Cooperation at the Ministry of National Defense"s Office for International Military Cooperation, said the most direct and effective way to avoid conflict is to reduce unfriendly or hostile, close-quarter military encounters in the air and at sea.
"If one side deliberately provokes the other, it is difficult for the other side not to react," he said. "The US and China agree on the principle of freedom of navigation, but differ on its content and scope of application."
"One side should not impose its unilateral interpretation and send military vessels and aircraft to conduct dangerous military activities in the other country"s territory," he said.
"If the two sides do not undermine each other"s security, they can cooperate in safeguarding the freedom of global navigation and provide more public security."