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China’s naval commander told his US counterpart there is a risk of “a minor incident that sparks war” if the United States continues with its “provocative acts” in the South China Sea, the Chinese navy said Friday.
Admiral Wu Shengli made the comments to US chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson during a video teleconference, according to a Chinese naval statement.
The two officers held talks after a US warship challenged China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea on Tuesday by sailing within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago.
“If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war,” the statement paraphrased Wu as saying.
“(I) hope the US side cherishes the good situation between the Chinese and US navies that has not come easily and avoids these kinds of incidents from happening again,” Wu said.
Speaking earlier, a US official said the naval chiefs agreed to maintain dialogue and follow protocols to avoid clashes.
Scheduled port visits by US and Chinese ships and planned visits to China by senior US Navy officers remained on track, the official said.
“None of that is in jeopardy. Nothing has been canceled,” said the official.
Both officers also agreed on the need to stick to protocols established under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
“They agreed that it’s very important that both sides continue to use the protocols under the CUES agreement when they’re operating close to keep the chances for misunderstanding and any kind of provocation from occurring,” said the official.
Indeed, Wu said he believed the Chinese and US navies had plenty of scope for cooperation and should both “play a positive role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea”.
A US Navy spokesman stressed Washington’s position that US freedom of navigation operations was meant to “protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law”.
Chinese warships followed the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, as it moved through the Spratlys on Tuesday. The US Navy is operating in a maritime domain bristling with Chinese ships.
While the US Navy is expected to keep its technological edge in Asia for decades, China’s potential trump card is sheer weight of numbers, with dozens of naval and coastguard vessels routinely deployed in the South China Sea, security experts say.
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Vietnam and Singapore, while Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan will attend a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Malaysia that US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is also due to attend.
EU backs US on sea incident
The European Union sided with Washington on Friday over a U.S.-Chinese patrolling incident in the South China Sea, in a move that may affect Brussels’ discussions with Beijing at next week’s Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of foreign affairs ministers.
“The US are exercising their freedom of navigation,” a senior EU official said at a briefing, chiming with the US line.
The EU is concerned about Beijing’s plans to build new islands in contested waters, the EU official said, a statement that may be welcomed by other Asian nations opposing China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
“While not taking a position on claims, the EU is committed to a maritime order based upon the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” an EU foreign affairs spokesman said in a statement.
The EU has been nursing relations with Beijing, hoping to attract Chinese funds to relaunch the bloc’s sluggish economy and has been negotiating a bilateral investment and trade deal.