(From Reuters)

The Chinese and US navies are set to hold high-level talks over tensions in the South China Sea after a US warship challenged Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the disputed waterway this week.

Destroyer USS Lassen
Destroyer USS Lassen

The US chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson and his Chinese counterpart Admiral Wu Shengli would hold an hour-long video teleconference Thursday, a US official said.

Both officers initiated the meeting to discuss recent operations in the South China Sea as well as naval ties, the official said. It will be the third such video teleconference between naval chiefs from the United States and China.

Beijing rebuked Washington for sending a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago Tuesday, saying it had tracked and warned the USS Lassen and called in the US ambassador to protest.

The patrol was the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits China claims around its artificial islands in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

“Neither the US nor China desires a military conflict, but the key problem is that the core interests of both sides collide in the South China Sea,” said Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “It’s hard to see either side backing down.”

Separately, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported that Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US forces in the Pacific, would visit Beijing next week. It cited an unnamed source and gave no further details.

A US embassy spokesman declined to comment.

Harris has been highly critical of China’s island building in the Spratlys. Earlier this year, he said China was using dredges and bulldozers to create a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea.

China rotates a large number of naval and coastguard vessels through the South China Sea, both for patrols and training missions, security experts say.

Chinese state media Thursday said a “guided-missile destroyer flotilla” under the navy’s South China Sea Fleet carried out a “realistic confrontation training exercise” involving anti-aircraft firing and firing at shore at night.

A state-owned news website carried photos from the drills, saying they took place recently in the South China Sea. One photo showed three warships sailing one after the other.

Military exercises

Despite criticism of China’s actions in the South China Sea, foreign navies from the United States to Europe have sought to build ties with their Chinese counterparts.

A French frigate docked at China’s main South China Sea base of Zhanjiang in the southern province of Guangdong on Wednesday on a four-day visit. It will participate in a maritime exercise about accidental encounters at sea.

Two Australian warships will also hold exercises with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea early next week, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said Thursday.

“There have been no changes or delays to the schedule of the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart since the United States activity in the South China Sea on 27 October 2015,” Payne said in a statement that gave no details on the precise location for the exercise.

Australian media said it would include live-fire drills.

Canberra, a key US ally in the region, expressed its strong support for freedom of navigation this week, while stopping short of welcoming the USS Lassen’s patrol.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

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