The U.S. Navy’s challenge last week to China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was not designed as a military threat, the head of U.S. Pacific military forces said Tuesday in a mostly upbeat speech about prospects for preventing U.S.-China disputes from escalating to conflict.
However, China on Tuesday urged the United States against further provocation in relation to the South China Sea.
“We urge the United States to not take any action that threatens China’s sovereignty and security,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing.
Her remarks came in response to a question regarding comments by U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on Monday, who said there would be more demonstrations of the U.S. military’s commitment to the right to freely navigate in the region.
According to media reports, the U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about U.S. rights under international law, said a U.S. defense official Monday on condition of anonymity.
Hua said China has always respected and safeguarded the freedom of navigation and overflight of various countries in accordance with international law, but strongly opposes any country using this as an excuse to damage China’s sovereignty and security.
She reiterated that China is firm in its determination and resolve to maintain its territorial sovereignty, security, and legitimate maritime interests.
“We will resolutely respond to deliberate provocation from any country,” said the spokesperson, adding that China will closely monitor the situation.
Meanwhile, in separate high-level meetings of military officials from the two nations later Tuesday — one in Beijing and one in Malaysia — top Chinese military officials again expressed their country’s pique over the U.S. warship sailing past Chinese-built islands, while also expressing hope that the two sides could build further trust.
Speaking at a university in the Chinese capital, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. cited a recent statement by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the international order “faces challenges from Russia and, in a different way, from China, with its ambiguous maritime claims,” including Beijing’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea.
However, Harris said the decision to send the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, into the South China Sea last week near Subi Reef, within the 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit claimed by China, was meant to demonstrate the principle of freedom of navigation.
“I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation,” Harris said, according to his prepared remarks. “These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.”
China at the time protested the Lassen patrol, calling it a “deliberate provocation,” and sent two warships to shadow the U.S. vessel and issue warnings.
In a meeting later Tuesday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan reiterated China’s view that the Lassen patrol was illegal, according to two senior U.S. defense officials who attended the meeting and briefed reporters afterward on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. officials said Chang told Carter that China’s activities in the South China Sea are mainly defensive in nature, and that for China there is a “bottom line” on U.S. challenges to China’s territorial claims there. The officials said Chang did not elaborate, and his remark was not interpreted as a threat of any kind.
Carter and Chang spoke for 40 minutes on the sidelines of an Asia defense ministers gathering. Carter welcomed President Xi Jinping’s statement at the White House in September that China “does not intend to pursue militarization” of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea.
Carter’s press secretary, Peter Cook, said the defense secretary accepted a Chinese invitation to visit Beijing next spring.
At the meeting Tuesday in Beijing between Harris and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff for China’s military, Fang said the sailing of the U.S. vessel had cast a shadow on the talks, and reiterated Chinese claims to South China Sea territory since “ancient times.”
“Just before your visit, regardless of the solemn representations of the Chinese side, the U.S. sent a naval vessel to cruise near the islands of China’s Nansha Islands, which has created a disharmonious atmosphere for our meeting, and this is very regretful,” he said in remarks in front of reporters at the Defense Ministry in Beijing.
Fang went on to say that “it is my hope that we can enhance mutual understanding and trust and remove negative effects.”
Story compiled from Xinhua and AP wires.
Chinese military officials meet U.S. navy admiral in Beijing
Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, was in Beijing for an official visit, amid tensions over the South China Sea. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense said the visit was a long-scheduled event and was part of China-US military exchanges to expand trust and enhance transparency.
This was Harris’s first visit to China since he became commander in May. He has come to Beijing to meet with Fang Fenghui, the chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
This meeting, arranged well in advance, came after the patrol-induced tensions between the two navies in the South China Sea. Last week, the U.S. destroyer Lassen patrolled off China’s Nansha Islands. China called the unannounced military maneuver a serious provocation while the US said it was exercising freedom of navigation, and rejects China’s claims.
This was the first visit by a senior US military official after the Lassen patrol in the South China Sea. Both sides were using the occasion to make their positions clear. It’s a true test for the relationship. Whether this meeting would help out, the two sides were expected to maintain or have more contact over the South China Sea and other issues in the future.
CCTV’s Han Bin reports from Beijing.