BEIJING – Beijing will not act first to “stir up trouble” over island disputes with neighbors, China’s defense minister said Tuesday at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
China and Japan are embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, raising concerns about the possibility of a clash between the Asian powers.
“We will not take the initiative to stir up trouble,” Gen. Chang Wanquan told a joint news conference in Beijing, a day after officers allowed the U.S. defense chief to tour the country’s first aircraft carrier, a rare move by the normally secretive People’s Liberation Army.
“China has indisputable sovereignty” over the islets, which Japan controls, Chang said, calling territorial sovereignty a “core issue” on which “we will make no compromise.”
But he added that China was ready to resolve disputes peacefully “with the countries involved.”
Last November, Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, including the disputed islets, prompting condemnation by Washington.
Beijing requires aircraft flying through its ADIZ to identify themselves and maintain communication with Chinese authorities, but the zone is not a claim of sovereignty.
Hagel said countries have a right to ADIZs but said setting them up without consulting other governments was risky as it could lead to “misunderstandings” and “eventually get to a dangerous conflict.”
Beijing is involved in disputes in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea and Hagel reiterated that the U.S. takes no position on territorial issues, wanting the disagreements resolved “peacefully.”
But he added that the “Philippines and Japan are longtime allies of the United States.”
Washington had treaties with both countries and “we are fully committed to those treaty obligations,” he said.
U.S. officials said the visit to the carrier marked a promising step by the Chinese but the two sides remained deeply divided over the regional territorial disputes, the threat posed by North Korea and cyberspying, with each side trading accusations of digital espionage.
In his talks, which followed a visit to Japan, Hagel urged authorities to pursue a more open dialogue about cyberwarfare.
“Greater openness about cyber reduces the risk that misunderstanding and misperception could lead to miscalculation,” Hagel said.
“We have tried to be as open and transparent on that as we can be,” a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said. “And we would like to see them be able to reciprocate.”
But the Chinese so far had not “reciprocated,” said the official, confirming a New York Times report.
The United States is investing heavily in a new cyberwarfare command, and suspects PLA units are behind an increasing number of digital attacks on U.S. government and corporate networks.
But China accuses the U.S. of waging its own cyberoffensive after revelations of far-reaching electronic espionage by the U.S. National Security Agency, including media reports that the spy service hacked into the network of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.
During his Asia tour Hagel has stressed that as a “great power” China has to live up to its “responsibilities,” suggesting Beijing should respect its smaller neighbors and adopt a more transparent approach in its relations with the U.S. military.
During his two-day visit to Tokyo, Hagel announced the deployment of two additional missile defense ships to Japan to counter the danger posed by North Korea, which recently test-fired medium-range missiles.
Washington has pleaded with China to exert more pressure on its North Korean allies but has come away disappointed.
China showed off its sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to Hagel in the eastern city of Qingdao on Monday, giving him a two-hour tour, including a briefing from the skipper and a walk on the flight deck.
The Chinese bought the Soviet-made warship from Ukraine and refitted it, putting the vessel into service in September 2012 in a milestone for the country’s growing military might.