US, China talk on Spratlys; Navy chiefs to tackle maritime tensions
BEIJING/WASHINGTON—The Chinese and US navies are set to hold high-level talks over tensions in the South China Sea after a US warship challenged Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the disputed waterway on Tuesday.
Adm. John Richardson, the US chief of naval operations, and his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Wu Shengli, would hold an hourlong video teleconference on Thursday, a US official said.
Both officers initiated the meeting to discuss recent operations in the South China Sea as well as naval ties, the official said.
It will be the third such video teleconference between naval chiefs from the United States and China.
Beijing rebuked Washington for sending a guided missile destroyer within 21 kilometers (12 nautical miles) of one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago on Tuesday, saying it had tracked and warned the USS Lassen and called in the US ambassador to protest.
A US defense official said the Lassen passed by the Philippine-claimed Zamora Reef (international name: Subi Reef) on which China has constructed an artificial island.
Another US official said the Lassen also sailed past another Philippine-claimed reef, Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), which China seized in the mid-1990s and developed into a military outpost.
China said authorities monitored and warned the Lassen as it approached the area, but a US official said the Chinese took no physical action and no incidents were reported during the 115-km passage.
The patrol was the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits China claims around its artificial islands in one of the world’s busiest sea-lanes.
China’s foreign ministry said on its website on Wednesday that Executive Vice Minister Zhang Yesui told US Ambassador Max Baucus that the United States had acted in defiance of repeated Chinese objections and threatened China’s sovereignty and security.
While offering no details, Zhang said Tuesday’s “provocative” maneuver also placed Chinese personnel and infrastructure on the artificial island in jeopardy.
A US defense official said the patrol was not a one-time operation.
“I would expect that this becomes a regular operation,” the official said. “This type of operation shouldn’t be seen as provocative.”
‘Balance of power’
The Philippines, which has taken its territorial dispute with China to the United Nations for arbitration, welcomed the US patrol as a way of helping maintain “a balance of power” in the South China Sea.
On Thursday, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the US patrol was “proof” of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“There are no territorial limits. The Americans have been passing by this area even before since these are international waters,” Gazmin said.
He noted that the Chinese did not challenge the USS Lassen as it does Philippine ships and aircraft.
“There is a balance of power, an enforcement of rules. If the rules imposed on us and other big nations are not equal, then we see that the challenge posed to our vessels is not right,” he said.
China claims most of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast oil and natural gas deposits.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam claim parts of the South China Sea. Taiwan also claims all of the sea.
Following the US sail-by on Tuesday, Indonesia called for all parties in the South China Sea dispute to exercise restraint and for China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to start discussions on a code of conduct to manage tensions in the heavily disputed waterway.
Speaking in Washington a day after a meeting with US President Barack Obama, Indonesian President Joko Widodo called on all parties to “refrain from taking actions that could undermine trust and confidence and put at risk the peace and stability in the region.”
Widodo said Indonesia, which has no claim in the South China Sea, was ready to play “an active role” in resolving the dispute.
“Neither the US nor China desires a military conflict, but the key problem is that the core interests of both sides collide in the South China Sea,” said Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “It’s hard to see either side backing down.”
Separately, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported that Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US forces in the Pacific, would visit Beijing next week. It cited an unnamed source and gave no further details.
A US Embassy spokesperson declined to comment.
Harris has been highly critical of China’s island-building in the Spratlys. Earlier this year he said China was using dredges and bulldozers to create a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea.
China rotates a large number of Navy and Coast Guard vessels through the South China Sea, both for patrols and training missions, security experts say.
Chinese state media on Thursday said a “guided missile destroyer flotilla” under the Navy’s South China Sea Fleet carried out a “realistic confrontation training exercise” involving antiaircraft firing and firing at shore at night.
A state-owned news website carried photos from the drills, saying they took place recently in the South China Sea. One photo showed three warships sailing one after the other.
Despite criticism of China’s actions in the South China Sea, foreign navies from the United States to Europe have sought to build ties with their Chinese counterparts.
A French frigate docked at China’s main South China Sea base of Zhanjiang in the southern province of Guangdong on Wednesday on a four-day visit. It will participate in a maritime exercise about accidental encounters at sea.
Two Australian warships will also hold exercises with the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea early next week, Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday.
“There have been no changes or delays to the schedule of the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart since the United States activity in the South China Sea on Oct. 27, 2015,” Payne said in a statement that gave no details on the precise location for the exercise.
Australian media said it would include live-fire drills.
Canberra, a key US ally in the region, expressed its strong support for freedom of navigation this week, while stopping short of welcoming the USS Lassen’s patrol.
Amid heightened tension following the US challenge, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Vietnam and Singapore next week, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Thursday.
The ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, said Xi would visit Vietnam on Nov. 5 and 6 and Singapore on Nov. 6 and 7. Reports from AP and Julie M. Aurelio
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