The Cable

U.S. Navy Chief Says He’ll Keep Sailing in South China Sea

Meetings With Chinese Navy Officials Represent a Thaw, Though Tensions Remain

PHILIPPINE SEA - JUNE 18:  In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy, The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), center, and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conduct dual aircraft carrier strike group operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.  (Photo by Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
PHILIPPINE SEA - JUNE 18: In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy, The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), center, and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conduct dual aircraft carrier strike group operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. (Photo by Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

There have been some tense moments between U.S. and Chinese forces in the South China Sea over the past several months, with China’s fighters buzzing American surveillance planes and its warships shadowing American aircraft carriers in international waters. And a high-level meeting between top naval officers from the two countries doesn’t seem likely to lower tensions.

That’s according to the head of the U.S. Navy, Adm. John Richardson. Richardson just returned from a five-day trip to China, where he met in Beijing with Adm. Wu Shengli, who commands the Chinese navy. Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Richardson said he “made it absolutely clear” to the Chinese that Washington will look after its “interests in the area and commitments to allies.”

Richardson said that Beijing was trying to blame the U.S. for several recent incidents where Chinese fighter planes came dangerously close to American surveillance planes over international waters. “They’re trying to posture many of their actions as a responsive measure to things we’re doing,” Richardson said, lapsing into Pentagon-speak. But he insisted that American activity in the South China Sea “has been relatively constant” over the years and hadn’t changed in a way that would warrant an aggressive Chinese response.

The two naval leaders seemed to agree on one cause of confusion: the media.

Wu “made the point there’s been an awful lot more media attention” on activities in the South China Sea than there has been in the past, Richardson said. But “we have a free press and they’re going to cover where their interests go,” the admiral replied. “And their state media is also talking about this as much, if not more, than Western media. So we had a nice discussion about the role of media, how the media is influencing populations, maybe raising expectations or raising emotions.”

Richardson’s visit was slightly overshadowed by Beijing’s announcement last week that it would begin conducting regular military air patrols over the South China Sea, including around a series of man-made islands there. The first flight, featuring Chinese H-6K bombers escorted by fighter jets and cargo planes took place “recently” a Chinese air force spokesman said.

China has said it will ignore a landmark July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague, which handed a major victory to the Philippines by explicitly rejecting China’s claims to a huge swath of the South China Sea.

Wu has said China would continue its construction efforts in the critical waterway. During Richardson’s visit, Wu said China will “never stop” work on its man-made islands.

Adding to the overall tension was an incident in April when the USS John C. Stennis and four other U.S. warships were denied entry into Hong Kong. Richardson said that the issue was one area where the two sides made some progress. “There’s a general agreement between [the] two sides we can increase those mutual port calls overall to each other’s benefit,” he said.

The U.S. is looking for other ways of building goodwill. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has asked him to throw his support behind the resumption of bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing over claims to several small islands in the South China Sea.

“The foreign minister said the time has come to move away from public tensions and turn the page,” Kerry told reporters while in Laos for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China scored a small diplomatic victory Monday after conference attendees agreed to delete any reference to the Hague court’s ruling from the joint statement that will be delivered at the conclusion of the talks. Kerry is next jetting off to the Philippines, where he’ll discuss the issue with newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte had already instructed former President Fidel Ramos to head to Beijing to begin talks over the islands.

Photo Credit: Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

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