China will never "recklessly" resort to the use of force in the South China Sea, a senior Chinese general said on Saturday, amid tensions over Beijing's building of islands in the disputed waters.
China's relations with several Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam who have competing claims in the South China Sea, have been strained over Beijing's increasingly assertive tone on territorial claims in an area through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually.
Beijing's move last year to step up the creation of artificial islands, which it claims are mostly for civilian purposes, has drawn strong criticism from Washington.
Fan Changlong, one of the vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission which controls the Chinese armed forces and is headed by President Xi Jinping, told a high-level security forum that China had sought to avoid conflict.
"We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues of sovereignty, and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts," Fan told the forum, attended by Southeast Asian defense ministers.
Fan claimed that China "will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea."
"We will continue to resolve disputes and differences with directly related parties through friendly consultation and are committed to working with relevant parties to maintain regional security and stability," Fan said.
The United States says international law prohibits claiming territory around artificial islands built on previously submerged reefs and that the U.S. military would sail or fly wherever international law allowed.
Beijing, however, denies it has militarized the South China Sea and has warned that it would not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation.
Gary Roughead, former U.S. chief of naval operations, told the forum the scale of the building of ports and airfields in the seas by China raised legitimate concerns.
"I do not see an influx of tourists clamoring to visit these remote outposts," he said.
China recently completed lighthouses on Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef in the Hoang Sa (Spratly) archipelago, a move which Vietnam said
is a "serious violation" of its sovereignty.
Some analysts in Washington believe the United States has already decided to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations inside the 12-nautical-mile limits that China claims around islands built on reefs in the Hoang Sa (Spratly) islands.
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, also attending the forum, said the United States had briefed Malaysia on these plans, but that he feared getting caught up between two superpowers.
"My concern is unintended, accidental, unintentional incidents on the high seas, especially between two major powers that at the end of the day will end up affecting smaller nations like Malaysia," he told reporters.
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea.