China deflects criticism over maritime disputes and relationship with North Korea

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China on Sunday deflected criticism over its actions in several maritime disputes with its neighbors and defended its relationship with North Korea.

Lt-Gen. Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army, reiterated at an annual security conference in Singapore that the Chinese government and military seek only peaceful development and that other countries should not view its strengthening military as a threat.

China is embroiled in a series of running disputes with its neighbors, including a high-profile one with Japan that has soured bilateral relations, and with several countries around the South China Sea who dispute China's claims to potentially oil-rich areas of the sea.

Beijing and Tokyo have been caught up in a long-running battle over what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese call Diaoyutai. China recently asserted its dominance by sending government ships into Japanese territorial waters in April.

Qi said China was only safeguarding its sovereignty in its dispute with Japan, where both claim ownership over the islands, and with other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

"We are very clear about that, so the Chinese warships and the patrolling activity are totally legitimate and it is uncontroversial to patrol within our territory," Qi said when being questioned by delegates.

Qi faced a series of pointed questions about China's growing military and regional assertiveness, and joked that he thought he would have "an easier time than Chuck Hagel," the U.S. defense secretary who is also at the conference.

Qi repeated China's stance that it wanted to resolve the disputes through bilateral negotiations. Some of the countries want multilateral talks, feeling China's size is too much of an advantage in direct talks.

He also repeated China's stance on North Korea, where the U.S. is seeking Chinese assistance in resolving problems with Pyongyang, which has raised tensions with a series of rocket launches, an underground nuclear test and threats of nuclear strikes against the U.S. and its allies.

Qi said China wants the tension on the Korean Peninsula reduced through talks, and that Beijing backs the denuclearization of the peninsula.

China is impoverished North Korea's economic and diplomatic lifeline, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of its trade.

Qi also dismissed concerns of any imminent collapse in North Korea. "I think we are overestimating the situation in North Korea. As far as we know, it is stable and we don't see any sign of break down in the country," he said in answer to a question.