FANGSHAN, China - China will respect the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as long as ships and aircraft transiting through "comply with international law", the Defence Ministry's spokesman said on Friday.
Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng also denied that China had stepped up military drills in recent weeks, despite a constant stream of reports about naval and on-shore manoeuvres in official media, saying the armed forces were just being more open about their usual activities.
In rare comments to the foreign media, Geng seemed keen to smooth feathers ruffled by a showdown between Beijing and Washington at a regional forum in Vietnam last week over the sovereignty of the South China Sea.
He said China had no intention of trying to restrict access to the area's vital shipping lanes for legitimate vessels.
"We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries which are in compliance with international law," Geng said, during a visit to a military base in the outlying Beijing suburb of Fangshan.
The area is not all under its control, but Beijing has recently been asserting territorial claims more strongly. The government particularly objects to the presence of U.S. surveillance ships and aircraft in waters China claims.
China has long-standing disagreements with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- all members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- over boundaries in the area which have sparked deadly naval clashes in the past.
Twelve of the 27 members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) raised concerns about the South China Sea at the forum's annual meeting in Hanoi last week, including the ASEAN members involved in disputes as well as the United States.
It was the first substantive discussion of the issue in that forum, and enraged Beijing, which accused Washington of playing up fears of instability in the region and sticking its nose where it was not wanted and had no right to be.
China says it wants to handle each dispute on a bilateral basis and opposes "internationalisation".
Washington says that as a Pacific power it has a legitimate security stake in keeping open the sea routes that are vital for commercial shipping and warships.
Geng said that China's ownership of the sea and the islands in it, which are thought to contain extensive and as yet largely untapped energy reservers, was "indisputable".
"China upholds resolving the dispute according to international law with related countries in the south sea through peaceful talks and friendly consultations," he added.
Sino-U.S. relations got off to a bad start in the new year with a spat over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. China broke off military-to-military contacts with the United States after the weapons sale.
"We hope the U.S. side prudently handles arms sales to Taiwan and other sensitive issues, and creates a good atmosphere and conditions for improving ties between the two militaries and pushing the development of relations," Geng said.
China was angered also by joint exercises this week by the United States and South Korea.
Yet China's own military build-up and growing defence spending has raised concerns around the region and in Washington.
Over the past few weeks Chinese state media has reported on a series of military exercises, in the South China Sea as well as in waters off China's east coast.
Geng said people should not read too much into the Chinese drills, which he said were normal and no different from the kind of exercises carried out by countries around the world.
Hearing more about Chinese manoeuvres was natural, he said.
"In recent years, the Chinese military has increased its reporting on exercises, mainly to show that the military is even more open and transparent," Geng added.