Saturday, May 16, 2015

• Kerry: US concerned by China's actions in South China Sea - BBC

John Kerry (left) and Wang Yi both pledged to further US-China co-operation
US Secretary of State John Kerry says he is concerned by the pace and scope of China's reclamation projects in contested areas of the South China Sea.

He was speaking at a press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, resulting in overlapping claims with Brunei, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Mr Wang said that China was determined to safeguard its sovereignty.

Mr Kerry is due to hold a series of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top government officials in the Chinese capital.

US officials had been briefing in advance that Mr Kerry was planning to deliver a stern message to China about what is alleged to be its huge land reclamation operation around some of the disputed reefs and islands it controls in the South China Sea.

At the joint press conference, Mr Kerry said that one of the strengths of the modern US China relationship was that the two sides could speak candidly and he said he urged China, through Mr Wang, to take actions to reduce tension.

Ahead of the meeting though, China had already pushed back at any suggestion it should moderate its behaviour, with state media accusing the US of "thinly veiled hypocrisy".

The conflicting claims to island chains in the South China Sea, like the Spratlys and Paracels, go back decades. But the US concern is that new Chinese assets, like military capable runways, will alter the balance of power.

Speaking after his meeting with Mr Wang, Mr Kerry said he "urged China... to take actions that will join with everybody in helping to reduce tensions and increase the prospect of a diplomatic solution".

Mr Wang replied that "the determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock and it is unshakeable".

He described the development work in the South China Sea as something that fell "within the scope of China's sovereignty".

But he also said that China and the US had "more common interests than differences", urging both sides "to act in the spirit of mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences".

US officials say China has reclaimed about 810 hectares of land (2,000 acres) of land in the disputed Spratly Islands since 2014.

Mr Kerry's visit comes as the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wraps up his visit to China.

The two sides have signed trade and economic co-operation deals worth $22bn ($14bn) in Shanghai.

On Friday, Mr Modi and China's Premier Li Keqiang said they agreed to seek a "fair resolution" to border disputes arising from a boundary disagreement.

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Filipino protesters display placards during a rally outside China's consular office in Manila on April 17 against the country's claim to islands and reefs in the South China Sea. (Jay Directo / AFP/Getty Images)

A US. Navy warship was closely trailed by Chinese navy vessels in the South China Sea during a rare patrol close to where China has been dredging sand to turn submerged reefs and shoals into islands it claims as sovereign territory, according to the Pentagon.

China’s close surveillance this month of the Fort Worth, a new high-tech San Diego-based littoral combat ship, suggested the growing tension over the competing maritime and territorial claims in the region's resource-rich waters.

The decision to send the Fort Worth near the Spratly Islands for the first time was intended to show Beijing that Washington does not accept that the surrounding seas constitute Chinese territorial waters. Navy officials said they plan to follow up with other patrols.

South China Sea watch: New islands rising, ASEAN worried

U.S. military officials, who worry that China is trying to establish de facto control over parts of a strategic international waterway, are formulating new options to present to President Obama. They include sending warships within 12 miles of the reclaimed reefs and rocks to make clear that Washington considers them international waters and is determined to preserve freedom of navigation.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is expected to press U.S. concerns about the extensive landfill and construction projects, including potential runways and port facilities, when he meets top Chinese officials in Beijing this weekend.

For now, U.S. officials believe they can pressure China into scaling back its island-building by showing it is galvanizing other governments against it. In recent months the U.S. has encouraged Japan to begin naval patrols in the South China Sea, an area it has rarely ventured into, and provided ships and other equipment to the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards.

The U.S. military also has stepped up operations. In January, the Navy began regular surveillance flights over the South China Sea, flying advanced P-8 Poseidon intelligence-gathering planes from a base in the Philippines.

The friction in the South China Sea is one of several security issues, including cybercrime, likely to dominate discussions as officials prepare for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Washington this year.

But the White House is under pressure from U.S. lawmakers — and from some allies in the region — to take more aggressive steps to counter what some portray as potential Chinese threats to air and sea traffic far from its coastline.

Both nations are moving cautiously, at least in public. China’s Foreign Ministry warned this week that it was “extremely concerned” about U.S. plans to add forces to the region.

“Freedom of navigation certainly does not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country’s territorial waters or airspace at will,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

Obama voiced concern last month in a White House news conference that China was “flexing its muscles” to advance its claims in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea, where China and Japan claim a rocky island chain called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam all claim parts of the South China Sea in a dispute that has simmered for decades. Several nations are pursuing reclamation projects or have built small military installations on disputed islands.

But those projects are dwarfed by China’s recent dredging. U.S. officials say the Chinese have created 2,000 acres of new land since last year on five coral outcrops in the Spratly archipelago: Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Gaven Reef.

The U.S. believes it will take at least until 2017 for China to complete construction on what appears an airfield at Fiery Cross Reef, David Shear, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told a congressional committee this week.

“China’s land reclamation could potentially have a range of military implications,” he said. Beijing could build bases for long-range radar installations, airfields for use by surveillance aircraft and fighters, and harbors for navy and coast guard vessels, he said.

“We’re in the process of ensuring that the Chinese have a crystal clear view of what we think of those features,” he said.

U.S. warships frequently transit the South China Sea and are often shadowed by Chinese navy vessels, and vice versa.

Navy officials refuse to say how close the Fort Worth, which is designed to operate in shallow water, sailed to the islands claimed by Beijing or the Chinese warships it encountered.

The Fort Worth “encountered multiple [Chinese] warships” and the “interactions” were “professional,” the Navy said in a news release. It noted that the ship also “conducted flight operations with its MH-60R Seahawk helicopter.”

So far, U.S. and Chinese commanders have been careful not to let their military operations provoke a confrontation. That has not always been the case.

Pentagon officials were furious in August when a Chinese fighter jet did a barrel roll over a Navy P-8 over the South China Sea. The White House condemned the incident as a dangerous provocation.

In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a Navy EP-3 surveillance plane, forcing the American aircraft to make an emergency landing on nearby Hainan island in Chinese territory.

The decision to send littoral combat ships to the western Pacific is part of the U.S. military focus on Asia and the Pacific that Obama announced four years ago.

Two ships take turns, steaming from San Diego to Singapore on 16-month deployments. Two more will join the effort in 2016, allowing more patrols in regional hot spots, officials said.

“Routine operations like the one Fort Worth just completed in the South China Sea will be the new normal,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Fred Kacher, who commands the squadron that includes the ships.

Lawmakers of both parties, and some allies in the region, have criticized the U.S. response so far as insufficient to rein in China’s island-building projects.

“I see no price whatsoever that China is paying for their activities in the South and East China Sea,” Sen. Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday. “I see us actually paying a price in our esteem in the region.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of State for East Asia, took issue with Corker’s criticism, saying that China’s operations had backfired by causing other governments in the region to seek U.S. assistance, to build up their own modest navies and coast guards, and to unite in regional forums in calling for a halt to land reclamation.

“I think unquestionably China is paying a price and it’s a growing price for its behavior,” Russel said.

The U.S. has long refused to take sides in the territorial disputes. But officials stress that man-made islands do not constitute sovereign territory under international law and therefore cannot be used to assert claims to territorial waters.

Chinese officials have given various explanations for the island-building projects. Some have said the new facilities will be used for disaster relief, environmental protection and scientific research. Other officials have said China's military needs to support radar and intelligence gathering in the region.

Beijing insists the reclamation projects are an internal matter taking place on Chinese territory. It has rebuffed regional demands to submit to international arbitration to resolve the maritime and territorial disputes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General Cong Peiwu as Kerry disembarks from his airplane after arriginrrival at Beijing International Airport in Beijing, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Kerry is in China to press Beijing to halt increasingly assertive actions it is taking in the South China Sea that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

BEIJING (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in China to press Beijing to halt increasingly assertive actions it is taking in the South China Sea that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors.

Amid verbal sparring between U.S. and Chinese officials over land reclamation projects China is conducting in disputed waters, Kerry arrived in Beijing on Saturday for a series of meetings with the communist nation's top leaders.

American officials said this week that Kerry is bringing a message to Beijing that China's large-scale land reclamation and general behavior in the South China Sea hurt China's image and foreign relations, including with the U.S.

China has reacted angrily to suggestions the U.S. may send military ships and planes to challenge Chinese claims to islands it is building. On Friday, Beijing reaffirmed that it will defend those claims and won't remain passive if they are threatened.

The claims have rattled the region, where South China Sea islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian governments. The U.S. says it takes no position on the sovereignty claims but insists they must be negotiated. Washington also says ensuring maritime safety and access to some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes is a U.S. national security priority.

In one disputed area, the Spratly Islands, U.S. officials say China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014 that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes. The U.S. argues that man-made constructions cannot be used to claim sovereignty.

Obama administration officials have declined to comment on reports that it may deploy military assets or that it is considering a demonstration of freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of the islands' notional territorial zone. But they have said many of the features claimed by China in the disputed Spratlys are submerged and do not carry territorial rights, and said China cannot "manufacture sovereignty."

On Friday, China hit back, saying it would be unswerving in defending its national interests.

"I would like to stress again that China's determination to defend national sovereignty and its legitimate rights and interests is unswerving," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters. "We will adopt stern measures to counter any acts that will pose provocations and threats against China."

Also Friday, state broadcaster CCTV ran an interview with China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, in which he lashed out what he described as Washington's hypocrisy and confrontational attitude. China says the U.S. ignores improvements it says other claimants are also making on their island holdings.

In addition to the South China Sea issues, Kerry will be looking to make progress with China in other areas, including climate change and cyber security, when he meets President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the country's top military officer.

His visit will also set the stage for annual U.S.-China economic and strategic talks this summer and a trip to the U.S. by Xi in the fall.