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China will defend its maritime rights: Def Minister

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China is locked in maritime disputes with a number of its neighbouring nations over the South China Sea and East China Sea. A file photo

WASHINGTON (AFP): Military relations between China and the United States are steadily improving but Beijing remains determined to defend its maritime rights, the country's defence minister has said during a US visit.

Although General Chang Wanquan and his US counterpart, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, struck an optimistic tone after more than three hours of talks, the Chinese official made clear Beijing would not make concessions when it comes to its core interests.

"We always insist that related disputes be solved through dialogue and negotiation," Chang told a joint news conference at the Pentagon on Monday.

"However, no one should fantasise that China would barter away our core interests, and no one should underestimate our will and determination in defending our territory, sovereignty and maritime rights," he said.

China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, despite rival claims from other countries in the region, which have accused Beijing of staging a gradual takeover of disputed islets.

And Japan and China are locked in a bitter feud over which country has sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea.

Hagel restated the US stance on the issue, saying Washington remained neutral over sovereignty questions but insisted that disagreements be resolved peacefully, "without coercion."

In the run-up to Monday's meeting, US defence officials have touted progress in defence ties with Beijing after years of false starts, crediting the shift in part to China's new leader, President Xi Jinping.

"One of the themes we emphasised today was that a sustained, substantive military-to-military relationship is an important pillar for this strong bilateral relationship," Hagel said.

And Chang said defence ties are "gaining a good momentum."

Before Monday's talks, Chang met the head of US Pacific Command in Hawaii on Friday and the head of Northern Command on Saturday.

His visit follows a series of high-level visits, exchanges and joint initiatives, including plans for Chinese naval forces to take part in a major US exercise next year.

This weekend, Chinese naval forces will take part in an anti-piracy exercise with US ships in the Gulf of Aden.

With China's rapid economic growth fuelling an expansion of military might, the US military has sought to forge a dialogue with the Chinese top brass to avoid any miscalculations or incidents on the high seas.

Washington also has pursued a strategic "rebalance" towards the Asia-Pacific region to counter Beijing's rising influence, particularly in the South China Sea.

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