BEIJING/WASHINGTON • A minor incident could set off a conflict in the South China Sea if the United States does not stop its "provocative acts" in the disputed waterway, China's naval commander told his US counterpart.
Admiral Wu Shengli made the comments to US chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, during a video teleconference on Thursday, according to a Chinese naval statement.
The two officers held talks after USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing's man-made islands in the contested Spratly archipelago on Tuesday.
If the US continues to carry out these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could be a serious situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that could spark conflict.
ADMIRAL WU SHENGLI, China's naval commander
China has rebuked Washington over the patrol, the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits China effectively claims around its seven artificial islands in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
"If the US continues to carry out these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could be a serious situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that could spark conflict," China's official Xinhua news agency yesterday paraphrased Adm Wu as saying.
"I hope the US cherishes the hard-won, good situation between the Chinese and US navies, and avoids similar incidents from happening again," Adm Wu added.
Speaking earlier, a US official said the naval chiefs agreed to maintain dialogue and follow protocols to avoid clashes.
Both admirals agreed on the need to stick to protocols established under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues).
"They agreed that it is very important that both sides continue to use the protocols under the Cues agreement when they are operating close to keep the chances for misunderstanding and any kind of provocation from occurring," the US official said.
A US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chinese had expressed no desire to cancel scheduled visits by Chinese ships to a Florida port next week, and that Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command, would still visit China.
"None of that is in jeopardy," the official added.
Adm Harris is due in China on Monday for a three-day trip, including meetings with senior Chinese military leaders, the US Pacific Command said, adding that "candidly addressing and managing disagreements" was among the objectives.
Adm Wu said he believed the Chinese and US navies had plenty of scope for cooperation and both should "play a positive role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea".
A US Navy spokesman stressed Washington's position that US freedom-of-navigation operations were meant to "protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law".
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Yesterday, China rejected a ruling by an international tribunal based in The Hague that it could consider an action brought by the Philippines over the disputed islands.
Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Vietnam and Singapore, while Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan will attend a meeting of South-east Asian defence ministers in Malaysia that US Defence Secretary Ash Carter is also due to attend.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE