The U.S.’s Pacific Fleet commander vowed in a Beijing speech to continue patrols in waters claimed by China in the South China Sea while emphasizing common ground with the country.
The U.S. Navy’s freedom-of-navigation patrols were intended to prevent the erosion of international law and shouldn’t be construed as a threat to any country, Admiral Harry Harris told a Peking University crowd, according to a text of the speech. The South China Sea won’t be an exception to the U.S. military’s policy of operating wherever the law allows.
The USS Lassen’s patrol last week within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, underscored the strategic competition between the two Pacific powers. While the patrols were probably welcomed by smaller Southeast Asian countries who feel China is encroaching on their own claims, they also risked escalating security tensions in shipping lanes vital to the global economy.
“Some pundits predict a coming clash between our nations. I do not ascribe to this pessimistic view,” Harris said. “While we certainly disagree on some topics — the most public being China’s claims in the South China Sea and our activities there — there are many areas where we have common ground.”
Harris later met with General Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, who said the U.S. patrol near China’s islands had created a “disharmonious atmosphere for our meeting and this is very regretful.”
“Since ancient times the South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory and we are resolute in our determination and will to safeguard our sovereignty and maritime rights,” Fang said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said last week the Lassen’s patrol “threatened China’s sovereignty and national interest, endangered the safety of the island’s staff and facilities, and harmed the regional peace and stability.”
Harris, who has described China’s island-building efforts as “creating a great wall of sand,” emphasized cooperation between the two sides. He said he continued to have candid and personal conversations with Chinese military commanders and cited current port visits by Chinese naval vessels in Florida and California as examples of cooperation.