By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of Japan's navy on Monday repeated criticisms of China's pursuit of territorial claims in Asia but called for a resumption of port and personnel visits suspended for several years amid rising tensions between the two Asian powers.
Admiral Tomohisa Takei said exchange visits by senior naval personnel and warships were effective in improving relationships between armed forces.
"They should be resumed as soon as possible," he told a Washington think tank. "Our door is open."While criticizing China's for its actions in the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing have competing territorial claims, and in the South China Sea, where China has rival claims with other Asian countries, Takei sought to play down remarks by Japan's Defense Minister Tomomi Inada last week on plans to step up cooperation with the U.S. Navy.
He said Inada's statement that Japan would step up engagement in the South China Sea with "joint training cruises" with the United States did not mean it intended to carry out patrols there, and that this had been misinterpreted.
"It means transit from one point to another; to use such occasions to conduct mutual or bilateral exercises, training with a foreign country," he said.
"That is the usual training and operation we have already conducted for several years."
Takei said Japan had no plans "at this time" to join the United States in freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, even though it was a vital waterway for the transit of 90 percent of Japan's crude oil and 80 percent of its natural gas.
"And we are not thinking of conducting operations only by ourselves," he added.
While urging greater engagement with China, Takei criticized Beijing for its "deliberate attempt to unilaterally change the status quo and undermine existing norms" by building artificial islands in the South China Sea and accused it of "invasion" of Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea.
He said there had been no port visit by a Japanese ship to China since a destroyer docked in Quindao in 2011 and no personnel exchanges for six years.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)