Secretary of State John Kerry expressed U.S. concerns Saturday that China is seeking to establish de facto control of the South China Sea by expanding shoals and islets in disputed waters.
In a meeting today with counterpart Wang Yi, 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,” to conflicting territorial claims within the strategic international waterway.
Wang rebutted the U.S. diplomat, defending the reclamation work as a matter of national interest. “I would like to reaffirm that the determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock,” he said.
Kerry arrived in the Chinese capital for two days of meetings with senior Chinese officials to plan and prepare for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the U.S. in September. Tension between the world’s two largest economies over China’s maritime and territorial claims overtook the agenda this morning.
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, encompassing some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It has quadrupled land reclamation to 2,000 acres and begun building at least one airstrip on the new islands, prompting protests from claimant states: the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam.
While those nations too are pursuing reclamation projects or have built small military installations on disputed islands, those pale in comparison to China’s recent dredging.
The U.S. is treaty-bound to defend its ally the Philippines in any conflict with China.
“China’s land reclamation could potentially have a range of military implications,” David Shear, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13.
The Chinese could build bases for developing long-range radar installations, airfields for use by surveillance aircraft and fighters, and harbors for navy and coast guard vessels, Shear 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.
China hopes to continue dialogue with the U.S. and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Wang said today as he and Kerry spoke at a joint press conference.
Freedom of navigation
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has asked the Pentagon to consider sending ships and aircraft on patrols in disputed areas, including within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of the reefs where China is building. Such freedom-of-navigation challenges might elicit protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its assertions.
“Where we may have different opinions, we don’t simply agree to disagree and move on,” Kerry said, adding that U.S.- China ties are one of the most consequential in the world. “Both of our nations recognize the importance of talking to each other candidly about those disagreements and try to find a cooperative road ahead.”
“We agree that the region needs smart diplomacy to conclude the ASEAN-China code of conduct, and not outposts and military strips,” Kerry said.
China and the U.S. need to have mutual respect and to address sensitive issues in a constructive manner, Wang said.
“It is OK to have differences as long as we can all work to avoid misunderstanding and avoid miscalculation,” he said.