China’s naval chief has issued a serious warning to the US navy against carrying out “provocative acts” in the South China Sea, two days after Washington vowed to again sail warships near disputed islands there.
Wu Shengli told his US counterpart, John Richardson, that even “a minor incident could spark conflict” between the two sides, China’s official Xinhua agency reported on Friday, three days after a USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 22km of at least one of the man-made land formations claimed by Beijing.
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“If the US continues to carry out these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could be a serious situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that could spark conflict,” Wu said.
“I hope the US cherishes the hard-won, good situation between the Chinese and US navies and avoids similar incidents from happening again,” Wu added.
On Tuesday, Chinese authorities monitored and warned away the US destroyer sailing in the South China Sea. Beijing then summoned the US ambassador and denounced what it called a threat to its sovereignty.
Beijing insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about a third of all the world’s traded oil passes.
The disputed waters – also claimed in part or in whole by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei – have also become the stage for a tussle for regional dominance between Beijing and Washington, the world’s two largest economic and military powers.
And on Friday, China rejected a ruling by an international tribunal based at the Hague that it could consider an action brought by the Philippines over the disputed islands.
Tensions have mounted since China transformed reefs in the area into small islands capable of supporting military facilities, a move the US says threatens the freedom of navigation.
Washington has repeatedly said it does not recognise Chinese claims to territorial waters around the artificial islands.
A Pentagon spokesman said the US and Chinese commanders discussed “freedom of navigation operations, the relationship between the two navies including pending port visits, senior leader engagement, and the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue,” during the phone call.
A US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chinese had expressed no desire to cancel scheduled visits by Chinese ships to a Florida port next week, and that Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command, would still visit China.
“We look forward to continue this dialogue,” the official said.
Harris is due in China on Monday for a three-day trip that will include meetings with senior Chinese military leaders, US Pacific Command said, adding that “candidly addressing and managing disagreements” was among the objectives.