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China says US sail-by could spark war

Warning comes as naval officials from both countries prepare for talks over South China Sea tensions

If the United States continues with its "dangerous and provocative acts" in the South China Sea there is a risk this could lead to "a minor incident that sparks war," China's naval commander told his U.S. counterpart in a teleconference.

Admiral Wu Shengli made the comments to U.S. chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson during a video teleconference on Thursday, according to a statement released by the Chinese navy on Friday. 

The remarks came after a spokesman at China's Defense Ministry said China's military will take "all necessary" measures in response to any future U.S. Navy incursions into what it considers its territorial waters around man-made islands in the South China Sea.

The statement by Col. Yang Yujun, just hours before Chinese and American naval officials were set to hold talks on the issue on Thursday, followed the sailing Tuesday of a U.S. guided missile destroyer within the 12-nautical mile — or 13 standard miles — territorial limit of one of the islands created by China over the last twelve months in the strategically important region.

China has been dredging and transporting sand to build the islands in the shallow seas just to the west of the Philippines. The U.S. refuses to recognize the man-made structures as deserving of sovereign territory status.

The issue has long been strain on relations in the region, with China’s claim to most of the South China Seas objected to by the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia, Brunei.

Brewing tension came to a head by the sail by of the U.S. warship earlier this week, prompting an angry response from Beijing warning Washington to end “dangerous provocations.” 

In an apparent attempt to walk back such rhetoric, U.S. chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson and his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, are set to hold an hour-long video teleconference on Thursday, a U.S. official said.

A spokesman for China's Ministry of Defense said Wu would present China's "solemn position on the U.S. vessel's entry without permission" into waters in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.

Both officers initiated the meeting to discuss recent operations in the South China Sea as well as naval ties, the U.S. official said. It will be the third such video teleconference between the countries' naval chiefs.

China took no forceful action during the USS Lassen's sail-by, but strenuously protested the maneuver. China's reaction fits the pattern in similar such incidents in recent years. Yang offered no details on how Beijing might respond differently in the future.

"We would urge the U.S. not to continue down the wrong path. But if the U.S. side does continue, we will take all necessary measures according to the need," Yang said. ‘

China's resolve to safeguard its national sovereignty and security interests is "rock-solid," he added. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls as its sovereign territory.

While the U.S. takes no formal position on sovereignty, it insists on freedom of navigation and has urged China to cease its ambitious project to construct new islands complete with buildings, harbors and airstrips.

Yang reiterated Beijing's claim that the USS Lassen violated Chinese sovereignty and international law, although the sail-by appeared to fall under internationally allowed "innocent passage" rules. Yang gave no details of China's claims.

Yang said a pair of Chinese navy ships had shadowed the Lassen, monitored its actions and issued warnings.

The spokesman said China supported the right to freedom of navigation and overflight, but accused the U.S. of abusing those for its own interests.

"We are strongly against any kind of effort in the name of freedom of navigation that might damage the interests and security of the littoral states," Yang said.

However, he indicated that the incident wouldn't disrupt official exchanges between the sides, saying that planning was still underway for a visit by Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, later this year. Harris recently stated that the South China Sea is no more China's than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico's.

Separately, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported that Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, would visit Beijing next week. It cited an unnamed source and gave no further details.

Ministry spokesman Yang said the plan was for Harris to visit before the end of the year, and that both sides remained "in communication" about it. He did not elaborate.

A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to comment.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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