MANILA -- China is building its military for self-defense and "will not take the first shot" as it seeks to resolve disputes with fellow claimants in the South China Sea, its envoy to the Philippines said late Monday.
Beijing will "never seek hegemony or never establish spheres of influence" no matter how strong it becomes, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said during a dinner reception for the 92nd anniversary of the People's Liberation Army.
China has built artificial islands over disputed reefs and outcrops in resource-rich waters, including those claimed by the Philippines, sparking international concern.
"China adopts a military strategy of active defense which adheres to the principle of defense, self-defense and post-strike response. Meaning we will not take the first shot," Zhao said. His remarks were posted on the embassy's official Facebook page.
Acknowledging concern over freedom of navigation and overflight, Zhao said China could suffer should it be "disrupted or even blocked by someone" since 75 percent of food traded to and from China pass through the South China Sea.
"China will follow the path of peaceful development. This is a commitment to the people of China and to the world, and this has been written into the Constitution of China," he said.
Manila "does not take words of other countries on their face value," Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters, when asked about Zhao's comments
"The President will always think beyond those words," Panelo said.
In June, a Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat and its crew was accused of deserting 22 Filipino fishermen at sea after their ship sank near Reed Bank (Recto Bank). This sparked a fresh diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing.
A verbal agreement between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was struck after the alleged ramming, came under close scrutiny.
Zhao said the PLA Navy escorted more than 6,600 vessels and rescued over 70 ships in peril, "including Filipino vessels and seamen." He did not mention the Reed Bank incident directly.
Under Duterte and Xi, the Philippines and China "elevated" its relationship to "strategic cooperation" Zhao said.
Duterte refused to flaunt Manila's victory before the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated Beijing's vast claims. His predecessor, former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, initiated the case.
"For those China, for the Philippines and for other claimant countries, it’s not easy to settle. It cannot be settled overnight. So we should be patient," he said.
There is a "growing momentum" for cooperation in the South China Sea and Beijing is "committed to the peace and stability," he said.
"China will continue to work with the Philippines and other states directly concerned to resolve the relevant disputes in the South China Sea. Through bilateral negotiation and consultation on the basis of respecting historical fact and in accordance with international law which also includes UNCLOS," he said.
UNCLOS refers to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.