John Kerry to take tough approach in China over South China Sea

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Secretary of State John Kerry will leave China “in absolutely no doubt” about Washington’s commitment to freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits Beijing this weekend, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.

Setting the scene for possibly contentious encounters with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, the official said Kerry would warn that China’s large scale land-reclamation work in contested waters could have negative consequences for regional stability – and for relations with the United States.

On Tuesday a US official said the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.

China’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Beijing was “extremely concerned” and demanded clarification of the remarks.

The senior US official said “the question about what the US Navy does or doesn’t do is one that the Chinese are free to pose” to Kerry in Beijing, where he is due on Saturday and Sunday for meetings with civilian and military leaders.

Kerry’s trip is intended to prepare for the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled to be held in Washington in June and Xi’s expected visit to Washington in September. But growing strategic rivalry rather than cooperation look set to dominate the talks.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday that freedom of navigation did not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country’s territorial waters or airspace at will.

“We demand the relevant side talks and acts cautiously and does not take any actions that are risky or provocative to maintain regional peace and stability,” she said.

The senior US official dismissed the idea that constructing islands out of half-submerged reefs gave China any right to territorial claims.

“YOU CAN’T BUILD SOVEREIGNTY”

“Ultimately, no matter how much sand China piles on top of a submerged reef or shoal... it is not enhancing its territorial claim. You can’t build sovereignty,” he said.

“He (Kerry) will leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintaining freedom of navigation and to exercise our legitimate rights as pertaining to over flight and movement on the high seas.”

He said Kerry would “reinforce... the very negative consequences to China’s image and China’s relationship with its neighbours on regional stability and potentially on the US-China relationship from their large-scale reclamation efforts and the behavior generally in the South China Sea.”

Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.6 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.

Last month, the US military commander for Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China could eventually deploy radar and missile systems on the islands it is building in the Spratly archipelago that could be used to enforce an exclusion zone should it move to declare one.

The US official who spoke on Tuesday said US Defence Secretary Ash Carter had requested options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the reefs China has been building up.

US President Barack Obama announced a strategic shift towards Asia in 2011 in response to growing Chinese power and influence, but critics have questioned his commitment to this“rebalance” given US security distractions elsewhere in the world and stretched resources.

News of the possibly tougher US stance came as the key economic pillar of the rebalance suffered a blow at the hands of Obama’s Democrats in the US Senate, who blocked debate on a Bill that would have smoothed the path for a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

Failure to clinch an agreement could damage Washington’s leadership image in Asia, where China has been forging ahead with a new Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) seen a challenge to US global financial leadership.