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U.S., Chinese navy chiefs to discuss South China Sea on Thursday

The Chinese and U.S. navies are set to hold high-level talks over tension in the South China Sea after a U.S. warship challenged China's territorial assertions in the disputed waters this week.

U.S. chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson and his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, would hold an hour long video teleconference on Thursday, a U.S. official said.

A spokesman for China's Ministry of Defence said Wu would present China's "solemn position on the US vessel's entry without permission" into waters in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.

Both officers initiated the meeting to discuss recent operations in the South China Sea as well as naval ties, the U.S. official said. It will be the third such video teleconference between the countries' naval chiefs.

Beijing rebuked Washington for sending a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China's man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago on Tuesday, saying it had tracked and warned the USS Lassen and called in the U.S. ambassador to protest.

""We would urge the US side not to continue down the wrong path," Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a regular briefing. "But if they do, we will take all necessary measures in accordance with the need."

Chinese President Xi Jinping will next week visit Vietnam, another vocal claimant in the South China Sea, and Singapore, while Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan will attend a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Malaysia.

The patrol was the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits China claims around its artificial islands in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

"Neither the U.S. nor China desires a military conflict, but the key problem is that the core interests of both sides collide in the South China Sea," said Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

"It's hard to see either side backing down."

Separately, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported that Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, would visit Beijing next week. It cited an unnamed source and gave no further details.

Ministry spokesman Yang said the plan was for Harris to visit before the end of the year, and that both sides remained "in communication" about it. He did not elaborate.

A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to comment.

Harris has been highly critical of China's island building in the Spratlys. This year he said China was using dredges and bulldozers to create a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea.

China rotates a large number of naval and coastguard vessels through the South China Sea, both for patrols and training missions, security experts say.

Chinese state media said on Thursday a "guided-missile destroyer flotilla" under the navy's South China Sea Fleet carried out a "realistic confrontation training exercise" involving anti-aircraft firing and firing at shore at night.

A state-owned news website carried photos from the drills, saying they took place recently in the South China Sea. One picture showed three warships sailing in a row.

Military Exercises

Despite criticism of China's action in the South China Sea, foreign navies from the United States to Europe have sought to build ties with their Chinese counterparts.

A French frigate docked at China's main South China Sea base of Zhanjiang in the southern province of Guangdong on Wednesday on a four-day visit. It will participate in a maritime exercise about accidental encounters at sea.

Two Australian warships will also hold exercises with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea next week, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday.

"There have been no changes or delays to the schedule of the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart since the United States activity in the South China Sea on 27 October 2015," Payne said in a statement that gave no details on the precise location for the exercise.

Australian media said it would include live-fire drills.

Australia, a key U.S. ally in the region, expressed its strong support for freedom of navigation this week, while stopping short of welcoming the USS Lassen's patrol.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

[Source: By Megha Rajagopalan and Andrea Shalal, Reuters, Beijing and Washington, 29Oct15]

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East China Sea Conflict
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