Kerry to question South China Sea reclamation in Beijing visit

May 14, 2015 08:05
John Kerry will state in no uncertain terms Washington's commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea during his upcoming visit to China, according to State Department officials. Photo: Blomberg

United States Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to reaffirm Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits China this weekend.

Kerry will leave Beijing "in no doubt" about the US position, Reuters reported Thursday, citing a senior State Department official. 

The official said Kerry would warn that China's land reclamation work in contested waters could have negative consequences for regional stability and for relations with the US.

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 waters.

China's foreign ministry responded by saying that Beijing was "extremely concerned" and demanded clarification.

US Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told a Senate hearing the United States had right of passage in areas claimed by China.

"We are actively assessing the military implications of land reclamation and are committed to taking effective and appropriate action," he said, but gave no details.

The senior State Department 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 for meetings with civilian and military leaders.

Kerry's trip is intended to prepare for the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month in Washington and Xi's expected visit to Washington in September.

But growing strategic rivalry rather than cooperation look set to dominate.

Chinese 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 State Department official dismissed the idea that constructing islands out of half-submerged reefs gave China any right to territorial claims.

"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.

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