The Chinese military denies it has adopted a tough approach in handling territorial disputes over the South China Sea, saying its recent moves in the disputed waters were intended to safeguard national interests.
At a press briefing on the nation's defence strategy ahead of today's 85th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, the military said China wanted to maintain friendly ties with other countries and engage in bilateral dialogue to settle territorial disputes.
But military officials said China would still need to continue to modernise its army, and it was the PLA's responsibility to protect the country's territorial integrity.
'It is not appropriate to link the legitimate activities of the PLA in safeguarding the lawful rights of China to any suggestion China is acting tough towards other countries,' said Geng Yansheng, a senior colonel and a National Defence Ministry spokesman.
He said recent moves by China in the South China Sea were intended to 'safeguard China's sovereignty, territorial integrity, maritime rights and interests. These activities are not targeted at any country or any party.'
Beijing has stepped up its assertion of sovereignty over the waters in recent months as rival claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, do the same. Beijing announced the establishment of Sansha on Yongxing Island last month to oversee two disputed island chains and an undersea atoll in the area. A military garrison has also been established at Sansha, prompting strong reactions from the Philippines and Vietnam.
Geng said the military garrison was a 'normal' arrangement. Its main tasks were to ensure smooth mobilisations, step up co-ordination between the military and local governments, support disaster relief and ensure security, he said.
The Chinese military has set up a system for regular patrolling in Sansha, but stopped short of saying how many officers would be deployed or the kind of equipment that would be used.
Geng reiterated that disputes should be handled through bilateral negotiations between the claimant countries. China is willing to co-operate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on regional security.
'China is opposed to military intervention in this region,' he said.
Military officials also attempted to downplay fears that the modernisation of the PLA posed a threat to the region. The nation's first aircraft carrier began sea trials last year, and the twin-engine J-20 stealth fighter is expected to become operational in about five years.
Colonel Lin Bai, a deputy director at the PLA's General Armaments Department, said the PLA was being modernised to fulfil China's self-defence needs and to protect its territorial integrity. He stressed China would remain committed to peaceful development. 'Compared to the advanced level of militaries in other countries, the quantity and technology of the weapons and equipment in China lags far behind,' he said. However, he said, China would not engage in arms races.
Wang Yongsheng, a senior colonel and deputy director of the political research office at the PLA's General Political Department, said the party still had absolute control over the army. He said China would oppose any 'erroneous' ideas about separating the army from the party. 'That suggestion contains ulterior motives. We will resolutely oppose them,' he said.