BEIJING: China’s foreign minister told top US diplomat John Kerry on Saturday that Beijing was “unshakeable” in its defense of sovereignty, as tensions between the powers mount over Chinese island-building in strategic but disputed waters.
The United States is weighing sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles — the normal territorial zone around natural land — of artificial islands that Beijing is building in the South China Sea.
Such a move could lead to a standoff on the high seas in an area home to vital global shipping lanes and believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
Beijing regards almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own and after talks in the Chinese capital foreign minister Wang Yi said: “The determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock and it is unshakeable.”
“It is the request of our people on our government as well as a legitimate right of ours,” he added sternly at their joint press conference.
Kerry was less assertive in public, saying Washington was “concerned about the pace and scope of China’s land reclamation” and urged it “to take actions that will join with everyone to reduce tensions”.
The region needed “smart diplomacy”, he said, rather than “outposts and military strips”.
Senior State Department officials had said ahead of the meeting that Kerry would take a tough line and “leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintain freedom of navigation”.
“That’s a principle that we are determined to uphold,” the official added.
The world’s top two economies have significant commercial ties and Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to pay a state visit to the United States in September.
But China’s ambitions for a place on the world’s political stage commensurate with its economic role have seen it cross the United States in multiple fields, and the two have long-running disputes over issues ranging from trade to cyberspying to human rights.
Beijing bases its territorial claims in the South China Sea on a segmented line dating back to Chinese maps of the 1940s.
Pentagon officials last week revealed that it is building artificial islands on top of South China Sea coral reefs at an unprecedented pace, in a land reclamation effort dubbed a “great wall of sand” by one American commander.
The rapid construction comes to 800 hectares, with 75 percent of the total created in the last five months alone, and includes a runway said to be 3,100 meters (10,200 feet) long.
US officials increasingly believe Washington needs to send a clear signal about China’s activities around the Spratly Islands and other disputed territories, while avoiding triggering a crisis.