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 Kerry visits Beijing this weekend, a senior State Department official said Wednesday. The statement came hours after another official said the U.S. is considering sending military aircraft and ships to the disputed area, parts of which are under competing claims by China and other nearby governments.
Kerry will also tell Chinese leaders that China's land-reclamation projects in pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea could have negative consequences for regional stability and relations with the United States, the official who spoke Wednesday told reporters.
China claims more than 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, displaying its reach on official maps with a line that stretches deep into Southeast Asia and recently stepping up its efforts to build up islands on shallow reefs in the disputed area. The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and Cambodia each claim rights over parts of the sea.
On Tuesday, another U.S. 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 areas.
China's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Beijing was “extremely concerned,” and demanded that the U.S. issue a clarification of the remarks.
The senior U.S. official said “the question about what the U.S 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, including President Xi Jinping.
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 overflight and movement on the high seas,” the official said.
“That won't change, and not only for us, and not only in the South China Sea, but internationally and as a global matter, that's a principle we are determined to uphold.”
Kerry would “reinforce to them the very negative consequences to China's image and China’s relationship with its neighbors on regional stability and potentially on the U.S.- China relationship from their large-scale reclamation efforts and the behavior generally in the South China Sea,” the official said.
The U.S. official who spoke Tuesday said Defense Secretary Ash Carter had requested options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of reefs that China has been building up in the Spratly island chain.
Such a move would directly challenge Chinese efforts to expand its influence in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.