Xi Tells Kerry China and U.S. Can Both Be Pacific Powers

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Chinese President Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping, China's president. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. and China must manage disputes in a way that doesn’t affect their relationship, President Xi Jinping told visiting Secretary of State John Kerry, as the U.S. urges China to curb its territorial expansion in the South China Sea.

The U.S.-China relationship remains “stable on the whole,” Xi said during Sunday’s meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, state-run media including Xinhua reported. “The new type of China-U.S. relationship has witnessed early harvest.”

Still, Xi, who has spoken previously of a model of major power relations to accommodate a rising China, said the two countries “should manage, control and handle disputes in an appropriate way so that the general direction of the bilateral relationship will not be affected.”

“The broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the United States,” Xi said.

The U.S. is pressing China to show restraint in its large-scale land reclamation in the contested South China Sea -- where Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris has said China is building a “great wall of sand” -- and the tensions risk overshadowing Xi’s visit to the U.S. in September. Alongside military expansion, China has been building its economic clout in ways that may challenge the western-led world order.

Xi and Kerry discussed the importance of Xi’s trip to Washington and issues including climate change, nuclear talks with Iran and a shared commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a State Department official said. Kerry also raised the South China Sea matter and the need to lower frictions, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of department policy.

Defacto Control

Kerry in a meeting on Saturday with Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed concern that China is seeking to establish de facto control of the South China Sea by expanding shoals and islets. Kerry said he urged China “to take actions that will join with everybody in helping to reduce tensions and increase the prospect of a diplomatic solution,” to conflicting territorial claims within the key international waterway.

Wang rebutted the U.S. diplomat, defending the reclamation work as a matter of national interest. “I would like to reaffirm that the determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock,” he said.

Shipping Lanes

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, encompassing some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It has quadrupled land reclamation to 2,000 acres, prompting protests from other claimants including the Philippines and Vietnam.

While those nations too are pursuing reclamation projects or have built small military installations on disputed islands, they pale in comparison to China’s recent dredging. The U.S. is treaty-bound to defend its ally the Philippines in any conflict with China.

China has said the islands would be used for a range of civilian purposes -- from search-and-rescue operations to marine meteorological forecasting -- but it has also said they’d be used for military purposes. It is building an airstrip on at least one of the islands and its foreign ministry said it reserves the right to establish an air defense identification zone over the area.

‘Indisputable Sovereignty’

China has “indisputable sovereignty” over areas of the South China Sea, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, told Kerry during their meeting, according to a statement posted on the website of China’s Ministry of Defense.

“China’s land reclamation could potentially have a range of military implications,” David Shear, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13.

The Chinese could build bases for developing long-range radar installations, airfields for use by surveillance aircraft and fighters, and harbors for navy and coast guard vessels, Shear said.

“We’re in the process of ensuring that the Chinese have a crystal-clear view of what we think of those features,” he said.

China hopes to continue dialogue with the U.S. and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Wang said Saturday as he and Kerry spoke at a joint press conference.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has asked the Pentagon to consider sending ships and aircraft on patrols in disputed areas, including within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of the reefs where China is building. Such freedom-of-navigation challenges might elicit protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its assertions.

Talking Candidly

“Where we may have different opinions, we don’t simply agree to disagree and move on,” Kerry said on Saturday, adding that U.S.-China ties are one of the most consequential in the world. “Both of our nations recognize the importance of talking to each other candidly about those disagreements and try to find a cooperative road ahead.”

China and the U.S. need to have mutual respect and to address sensitive issues in a constructive manner, Wang said.

“It is OK to have differences as long as we can all work to avoid misunderstanding and avoid miscalculation,” he said.

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