US says China relationship of vital importance despite South China Sea issue

The USS Lassen (front) conducting a trilateral naval exercise with the Turkish and South Korean Navy in waters to the south of the Korean Peninsula in May, 2015.
The USS Lassen (front) conducting a trilateral naval exercise with the Turkish and South Korean Navy in waters to the south of the Korean Peninsula in May, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US State Department said on Tuesday that the US relationship with China was of vital importance and the United States wanted to see it grow, in spite of differences over the South China Sea.

"Setting this aside, the U.S.-China relationship is vitally important and one we want to see continue to improve and to grow for the benefit of both our countries, not to mention the region," State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing.

A US guided-missile destroyer - the USS Lassen - sailed close to one of China's man-made islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it had tracked and warned the ship and called in the US ambassador to protest.

Earlier the White House said that the US freedom-of-navigation operations, including the one in the South China Sea on Tuesday, do not assert any unique rights, adding that the United States will fly and sail anywhere international law allows.

Asked about the patrol of  the USS Lassen near China's manmade islands in the South China Sea, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said aboard Air Force One that he could not discuss details about military operations, but added: "Our freedom of navigation operations do not assert any specific U.S. rights."