Muted US response to China plan to boost naval reach as officials sidestep questions

US Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, earlier this month. -- PHOTO: AFP 
US Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, earlier this month. -- PHOTO: AFP 

Senior United States administration officials largely skirted the issue of a new Chinese military white paper on Tuesday, with State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke saying that he was aware of the document but had not read it.

If the Chinese document released earlier on Tuesday outlining an intention to project its military power further beyond its maritime borders had raised any alarms in the State Department or the White House, officials seemed determined to play it down.

"We are aware of the white paper and we continue to monitor China's military development carefully," he said during daily press briefing at the State Department, but added that he was not going to offer a judgement on it.

"I haven't read the white paper, I think it had just been issued and I think I've made our point of view clear on what our general desire is and what we encourage China to do with regards to its defence policy and its military development."

The State Department official largely reiterated US positions on Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

"We also urge china to exhibit greater transparency with respect to its capabilities and with its intentions. In conjunction with that, we encourage China to use its military capabilities in a manner that is conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Beijing had unveiled military plans that included an expansion on its "active defence strategy" as well as an intention to engage in "open seas protection" instead of just "offshore waters defence". Its airforce would also shift from a purely defensive stance to one that included defence and offence.

The paper comes at a time when tensions between US-and China over maritime issues in the South China Sea are at a high. Last week, the Chinese navy engaged in a tense radio exchange with a US surveillance craft flying near Chinese artificial islands constructed in contested territory.

A week earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry engaged in heated exchange with his Chinese counterpart after the former accused Beijing of provocative actions in the South China Sea.

There were no such fireworks on Tuesday in response to the white paper, however.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest did not even directly address the white paper. He spoke generally about the region and stressed that the administration retains a strong interest in developments there.

He said: "The president has often talked about how critically important the situation is in the South China Sea. it is critical to the national security of the United States, it is also critical to the global economy.

"The free flow of commerce in the South China Sea is something that needs to be maintained and the United States is committed to working with other countries in the region to protect it and because it is a priority you can expect that the president has been briefed on the latest in this situation and will continue to be."