Top China General Tells U.S. Sea Dispute Shouldn’t Hinder Ties

China’s highest-ranking general told U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recent disagreements over island-building in the South China Sea shouldn’t overshadow broader ties between the two countries.

General Fan Changlong -- second only to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the Central Military Commission -- said during a visit to the Pentagon on Thursday that the territorial spat represented “just one episode in Sino-U.S. relations,” according to a statement posted on the Ministry of National Defense website. The meeting between the defense chiefs helps pave the way for Xi’s planned state visit in September.

“China is likely to tamp things down a little bit in the run up to Xi Jinping’s visit,” said Alexander Sullivan, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “They’ll turn down the temperature a little bit for the sake of having a good meeting and not having the atmosphere spoiled by points of disagreement.”

The meeting comes two weeks after Carter pledged to contest any nation’s efforts to expand territory in the South China Sea and to continue U.S. security dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. China had days earlier challenged U.S. surveillance flights in the area, where it has been expanding islets and partially submerged rocks, alarming smaller neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

While Fan did urge Carter to reduce the U.S.’s “maritime and airspace activities” in the contested body of water, the tone of the meeting Thursday was largely conciliatory, according to the statement.

‘Gaze Far’

“China and the U.S. should climb high and gaze far,” Fan said. “If you look from afar, big waves appear small. If you look from high, the ocean seems peaceful.”

Carter reiterated the U.S.’s desire for an end to land-reclamation projects in the South China Sea and stressed his commitment to “a sustained and substantive U.S.-China military-to-military relationship,” according to the Pentagon. According to U.S. officials, China has created 2,000 acres of land on coral outcroppings, with most of that happening since December.

Fan’s week-long U.S. trip also included stops at U.S. military bases in California and Texas and a visit to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which will soon be deployed to Japan. On Friday, Fan is expected to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice at the White House.

Such goodwill was expected before Xi’s high-profile visit, said Sullivan. “And then the honeymoon period wears off quickly and they go back to doing what they were doing before,” he said.

For more, read this QuickTake: Territorial Disputes

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