On March 23, Premier Li Keqiang, while on a visit to Australia, argued (rather implausibly) that China is not militarising the disputed South China Sea and that defence equipment including missile batteries installed on artificial islands were “primarily” for civilian use. He also insisted that China’s main concern was to improve stability and security and ensure “freedom of navigation.”
On March 27, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin called for the setting up of a new mechanism to boost cooperation in the South China Sea in such areas as disaster prevention, maritime rescue, environmental protection, biodiversity, scientific research and navigational safety. He said such cooperation would also enhance mutual trust in the region.
And, of course, China is making much of the ongoing negotiations with ASEAN on a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, holding it up as a tangible expression of China’s commitment to Asean and to the peaceful settlement of disputes.