Top Chinese and American diplomats sparred publicly for the first time over China's land reclamation in the South China Sea, with both sides offering hardly a clue as to what they might do to reduce regional tensions.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry told a joint press conference after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the US expressed its concerns over the pace and scope of China's land reclamation in the South China Sea.
"I urge China, through Foreign Minister Wang, to take actions that would join everyone in reducing tensions and increase prospects of a diplomatic solution," said Mr Kerry, who arrived in Beijing yesterday for a two-day visit.
"I think we agree that the region needs smart diplomacy in order to conclude a China-ASEAN code of conduct and not outposts and military strips."
Responding to Mr Kerry's remarks, Mr Wang warned of the need to avoid "misunderstandings and, most importantly, miscalculations", a veiled reference to media reports that the US plans to send planes and vessels to challenge China's territorial claims in the maritime hub.
He reiterated China's argument that the construction activities, including turning submerged reefs into isles, fall fully within the scope of Chinese sovereignty.
And China's determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity was "unshakable", he added.
While China's policy of resolving disputes through direct negotiations with claimant states remains unchanged, Mr Wang promised greater dialogue with the US and ASEAN members to allay concerns.
"We are doing this already and we will continue to do so," he said.
China claims up to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, which is claimed in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Satellite images show that China has conducted reclamation work on seven sites in the contested Spratly island group since March last year, including construction of a 3,000m runway and airborne early warning radars on Fiery Cross Reef.
Its activities led ASEAN leaders at their recent summit to express concern over the impact on freedom of navigation and overflight.
At yesterday's press conference, Mr Kerry did not address a question about US plans to send planes and vessels and Mr Wang did not respond when asked how China would react if it happened.
Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang believes the US will deploy planes and warships as a pre-emptive move to stop China from declaring the waters around the man-made isles as part of its territory. He also thinks China will not budge from its plans despite criticism from the US and the other claimants.
"For the US, it would have to act on its threat of sending planes and ships or risk damage to its credibility and a further weakening of its regional influence," Prof Li added. Analysts said the US move could be aimed at preventing China from declaring an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.
In 2013, Beijing announced an ADIZ in the East China Sea which covers islands that Japan also claims.
Given Mr Wang's promise to assuage concerns, Peking University's Sino-US expert Niu Jun thinks China will be inclined to slow the pace of its reclamation work.
"Doing so would reflect China's desire to show its commitment to a new model of major-power relationship with the US," he added.
Yesterday's meeting also covered wide-ranging issues including Iran and North Korea's nuclear programme and the United Nations climate change conference to be held in Paris in December.
Mr Kerry's visit is aimed at preparing for the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting in Washington next month as well as President Xi Jinping's US trip in September.
He met Premier Li Keqiang and senior Chinese officials yesterday and will meet Mr Xi today.
This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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