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U.S. Admiral, in Beijing, Defends Patrols in South China Sea

The head of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said in Beijing on Tuesday that the Navy would continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations similar to one in the South China Sea last week that China criticized.

Speaking to a small audience at the Stanford Center at Peking University, Admiral Harris defended the operation last week, which involved sending a destroyer inside the 12-nautical-mile radius that China claims as its territorial waters around Subi Reef, an artificial island built by the Chinese in the South China Sea.

"We've been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no one should be surprised by them," Admiral Harris said. "The South China Sea is not, and will not, be an exception."

Admiral Harris emphasized that the United States had carried out such operations around the world "while avoiding military conflict, and that remains our goal."

Admiral Harris arrived in China on Monday night for a long-planned visit that is part of regular exchanges between senior American and Chinese military officials. The admiral is an outspoken advocate of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and accused China this year of building "a great wall of sand" in the strategic waterway, a reference to artificial islands that the Chinese have constructed.

Coinciding with Admiral Harris's visit, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing had unusually scathing comments about the American destroyer's mission.

"What has been unfolding lately is just like watching a self-orchestrated, self-directed, self-performed show," the ministry's spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said at a regularly scheduled briefing on Tuesday.

An estimated 100,000 ships travel "safely and freely" through the South China Sea a year, she said, adding that millions of barrels of oil also pass through the waterway daily. "They run into no problem at all," she said.

In an apparent effort by the Obama administration to insulate the admiral's visit, the Pacific Command and the Pentagon kept Admiral Harris's itinerary largely under wraps during the first day.

His address at the Stanford Center, which is operated by Stanford University, the alma mater of the American ambassador, Max Baucus, was closed to the news media.

A transcript released afterward indicated that Admiral Harris took questions from the audience, but the contents of that discussion were not available, a spokesman at the United States Embassy said.

About 15 professors and students from Peking University, all Chinese, were in the audience, and 15 scholars studying at Stanford in California, all American, listened by video, said Andrew J. Andreasen, the executive director of the center.

At the end of Admiral Harris's day in Beijing, the Pacific Command said that he had met separately with Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, and Gen. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

"It was a candid, respectful and substantive dialogue between military professionals," said Capt. Darryn James, the chief Pacific Command spokesman.

According to the website of the Chinese military's flagship newspaper, The People's Liberation Daily, General Fan told Admiral Harris that the American warship had posed a threat to China's territorial sovereignty and could "easily trigger miscalculations and accidents."

While Admiral Harris has frequently spoken about the need for freedom of navigation operations to challenge China's claims in the South China Sea, the Obama administration is also trying to prevent relations with the Chinese military from deteriorating.

In his speech, Admiral Harris said that two Chinese vessels, including a Navy hospital ship, the Peace Ark, were visiting American ports. The commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott H. Swift, will visit Shanghai this month, he said.

"We must not allow the areas where China and the U.S. disagree to impact our ability to make progress on the areas where we do agree," he said.

The dispatch of the destroyer Lassen last week to the waters inside the 12-nautical-mile perimeter of Subi Reef was meant to show that China could not claim territorial waters on an artificial island built from what is known as a low-tide elevation. Before the construction, Subi Reef was visible only during low tide.

A Chinese Navy vessel followed the Lassen as it entered the waters but did not interfere with its operations. The Chinese military objected to the operation, saying it was "illegal" and a "provocation." The Foreign Ministry called in the American ambassador, Mr. Baucus, and made a formal objection.

A professor at Peking University, Jia Qingguo, who was in the audience for Admiral Harris's talk, said the Chinese government had made clear that the operation by the Lassen had endangered China's national security.

"China thinks the two countries should enhance communication and mutual trust rather than doing things like this to escalate the situation," said Mr. Jia, the dean of the school of international studies at Peking University.

China has constructed seven artificial islands on top of submerged reefs in the Spratly archipelago, where the Philippines and several other governments also have claims. A military-size runway has been completed on one of the new islands, and China is working on runways on two more.

[Source: By Jane Perlez, The New York Times, Beijing, 03Nov15]

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East China Sea Conflict
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