China’s top diplomat said Saturday that Beijing had no intention of scaling back island-building efforts in the South China Sea that have aggravated tensions in waters claimed by a number of neighboring governments.
BEIJING — China’s top diplomat, emerging from talks with Secretary of State John Kerry here, suggested Saturday that Beijing had no intention of scaling back island-building efforts in the South China Sea that have aggravated tensions in waters claimed by a number of neighboring governments.
At a news conference, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Chinese claims over a collection of uninhabited reefs off the coast of the Philippines were “unshakable,” suggesting Kerry’s message that China help reduce tensions in the region had fallen on deaf ears.
“The determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock,” Wang said.
The news conference was carefully scripted, with Chinese officials allowing only two questions: one from a Western media outlet directed at Kerry, and another posed to Wang by a reporter from China’s state media.
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Kerry, however, declined to respond to what was undoubtedly the most anticipated question of the day: whether the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys as a show of American resolve.
It was Wang, however, who answered the question, broaching the agreed-upon protocol and suggesting that the presence of U.S. military aircraft in the region would have little impact on China’s island-expanding venture.
“It is the people’s demand of the government and our legitimate right,” he said.
Kerry, on his fifth visit to China as secretary of state, is ostensibly here to discuss plans for a White House summit between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, and an annual gathering of Chinese and American officials that is scheduled to take place next month in Washington, D.C.
During their talks Saturday morning, the two men said they had covered a range of issues that have historically seen cooperation from both sides: climate change, Iran’s nuclear program and improved military relations between the U.S. and China.
“There is no question but that our nations share extraordinary opportunities that are looking at us as we build the history of this century,” Kerry said.
“We have a lot to accomplish together in the coming years. As two of the world’s major powers and largest economies, we have a profound opportunity to set a constructive course on a wide range of issues that will affect everybody all across this planet.”
But China’s ramped-up dredging efforts in the South China Sea, which began after Xi took power three years ago, have become an increasingly nettlesome issue for the U.S. Although the U.S. does not have a position on the overlapping territorial claims by China and five other governments, it says it is committed to freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The most recent surge of land reclamation in the atolls and outcroppings known as the Spratlys is 1,000 miles from the China’s southernmost point, Hainan Island, but just off the coast of the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally. Recent satellite images show the Chinese have vastly expanded a number of reefs in the Spratlys, and that they are building a concrete runway on one island capable of handling military aircraft.
State Department officials said earlier this week that Kerry would deliver a tough message to Chinese leaders, although his public comments on Saturday were subdued.
“I urged China through Foreign Minister Wang to take actions that will join everybody in helping to reduce tensions and increase the prospect of a diplomatic solution,” Kerry said.