China is committed to resolving maritime disputes through talks, official says

Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao

By Laurie Chen

QINGDAO, China (Reuters) -China remains committed to resolving maritime disputes with other countries through dialogue but will not allow itself to be "abused," a top military official said at a meeting of senior foreign naval officials in the port city of Qingdao on Monday.

The sea should not be an arena where countries can flex their "gunboat muscles", added Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and China's second-highest-ranking military official.

"Reality has shown that those who make deliberate provocations, stoke tensions, or support one side against another for selfish gains will ultimately only hurt themselves," Zhang said during the opening ceremony of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium at the upscale St Regis hotel.

The comments were an apparent reference to growing tensions in the South China Sea, where Washington treaty ally Manila is in a fraught standoff with Beijing over the strategic waterway, a potential flashpoint for U.S-China relations.

Zhang also told the gathered delegates that "carrying out maritime containment, encirclement and island blockades will only plunge the world into a vortex of division and turbulence."

The event overlaps with annual U.S.-Philippines large-scale joint military drills, which begin on Monday and will be held outside Philippine territorial waters for the first time.

Tensions are particularly high around the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, where Manila has accused Beijing of "harassment", including the use of water cannons against Philippine vessels.

The symposium is a rare opportunity for countries with opposing regional interests to exchange views. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Stephen Koehler is attending from the United States. Other delegations include Australia, France, India, Russia and Britain.

The Philippines did not attend despite being a member nation of the forum.

"This is a very good opportunity to hold bilateral talks with each navy - not only on AUKUS, but on broader maritime topics," said Captain Takuo Kobayashi, a senior official with the Japanese naval delegation. "The Chinese Navy are building up their muscles in the South China Sea quickly, so I'm paying a lot of attention to the Chinese Navy's developments."

Participants will hold closed-door talks on topics such as updating the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a set of guidelines meant to de-escalate tensions between militaries at sea.

They will also vote on the creation of a new working group on unmanned systems with the People's Liberation Army Navy as the coordinator, according to the forum agenda.

(Reporting by Laurie Chen; writing by Antoni Slodkowski and Ryan Woo; Editing by Kim Coghill and Gerry Doyle)