WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State John Kerry will leave China "in absolutely no doubt" about Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits Beijing this weekend, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.
Setting the scene for what could be contentious encounters with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, the official said Kerry would warn that China's land-reclamation work in contested waters could have negative consequences for regional stability - and for relations with the United States.
On Tuesday, a US official said the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
China's Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Beijing was "extremely concerned" and demanded clarification.
US Assistant Secretary of Defence David Shear told a Senate hearing the United States had right of passage in areas claimed by China. "We are actively assessing the military implications of land reclamation and are committed to taking effective and appropriate action," he said, but gave no details.
The senior State Department official said "the question about what the U.S Navy does or doesn't do is one that the Chinese are free to pose" to Kerry in Beijing, where he is due on Saturday for meetings with civilian and military leaders.
Kerry's trip is intended to prepare for the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month in Washington and Xi's expected visit to Washington in September. But growing strategic rivalry rather than co-operation look set to dominate.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that freedom of navigation did not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country's territorial waters or airspace at will.
On Thursday, influential Chinese tabloid the Global Times warned that the United States was risking a showdown if it sends its military to the South China Sea.
"If Washington takes this dangerous step, it will be nothing but a blatant infringement of China's sovereignty, and the US can expect potent countermeasures," it said in an editorial in both its Chinese and English language editions.