Beijing backs code to prevent conflict at sea along with US and Japan
Ban on radar-locking of weaponry and a clearer system of communication agreed by 21 nations, including Japan and the US, at Qingdao forum
Teddy Ng in Beijing, Julian Ryall in Tokyo and Reuters in Qingdao
China is among 21 countries to have approved a charter aimed at preventing unintended military conflict at sea.
Japan, the United States and the Philippines also adopted the agreement, which sets out a communications mechanism for when naval vessels meet unexpectedly in busy sea lanes in the Asia Pacific region.
The agreement reportedly includes a ban on the radar locking of weaponry on vessels of other nations in peacetime.
The move comes amid rising territorial friction between China and its neighbours.
The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea was approved unanimously at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in the port city of Qingdao . It comes after more than 10 years of discussion since such a charter was first proposed by Australia.
PLA Navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli said the code was important to avoid misjudgment and called for candid communications among the militaries to manage their differences.
"We have to respect and learn from history and should resolve maritime disputes through peaceful means, refraining from taking radical action that will seriously affect regional stability," he said.
With sea lanes increasingly militarised as major Asia-Pacific powers flex their muscles in a series of disputes, navies will now fire off green, yellow or red flares according to the situation.
Japan's Kyodo news agency said the code included the ban on radar locking - a move usually carried out before an attack.
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said in Tokyo yesterday the code - which is not legally binding - included specifications urging "restraint on the use of weapons and using various means to make contact".
The risks of an unintended conflict were highlighted in January when Tokyo alleged that a Chinese frigate locked its radar on a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea. In December, the US military cruiser Cowpens had to take evasive action in the South China Sea to avoid hitting a warship supporting China's first aircraft carrier, Liaoning.
Defence analysts said Beijing opposed the code when it was first proposed because it would have been legally binding. But it had been encouraged to adopt the protocol to reduce fears over its territorial ambitions.
Masafumi Iida, an analyst at the National Institute of Defence Studies in Japan, said: "This may be the first positive step by the Chinese navy in accepting the rules of navigation and the laws of developed nations."
Yue Gang , a retired colonel, said the risk of "miscalculations" at sea was rising because of mutual suspicion between China and its neighbours. "The root of it is the lack of political trust among the nations," he said.
Gary Li, an analyst at IHS Maritime, said the code would help reduce tensions in incidents similar to the one involving USS Cowpens. But he said: "I'd expect a certain amount of flexibility in exercising the agreement.
"I would not expect any one side to adhere completely to it during any territorial dispute, although these confrontations would now be within a framework of measures."