BEIJING – China criticized U.S. “hegemony and hypocrisy” on Tuesday after a top U.S. admiral vowed to continue naval patrols in the South China Sea.
On a visit to China, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., defended last week’s decision to sail a U.S. naval destroyer close to a Chinese-occupied island in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, and reiterated that such patrols would continue — despite Beijing’s intense displeasure.
Harris, speaking at the Stanford Center at Peking University, tried to play down the dispute by stressing deepening cooperation between the two nation’s militaries, including joint participation in regional military exercises and a coordinated naval search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 last year.
“Some pundits predict a coming clash between our nations. I do not ascribe to this pessimistic view,” he said. “While we certainly disagree on some topics — the most public being China’s claims in the South China Sea and our activities there — there are many areas where we have common ground.”
The United States and its regional allies have become increasingly concerned about China’s efforts to build artificial islands on rocks and reefs in the South China Sea, and to construct airstrips and surveillance equipment on those islands. In April, Harris said China was building a “Great Wall of Sand” there. Last week’s action by the USS Lassen was designed to show that the United States would not tolerate any interference with freedom of navigation in nearby waters.
Harris said Monday he continues to have “personal and candid conversations” with Chinese military leaders about tension in the South China Sea. He also described China’s claims to almost all of the South China, encompassed by its “nine-dash line,” as both “ambiguous” and a challenge to the “rules-based international order.”
But he tried to characterize last week’s mission by the U.S. destroyer as routine.
“Our military will continue to fly, sail and operate whenever and wherever international law allows. The South China Sea is not — and will not — be an exception,” he said. “I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation.”
A Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details, said the Lassen had also sailed past four islets or reefs held by Vietnam or the Philippines last week before it went past the Chinese-held Subi reef.
However, the attempt by Harris to defend U.S. actions met a fierce rebuttal from China, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accusing the United States of “plain provocation."
With 100,000 ships passing through the South China Sea safely every year, it was a “false proposition” to argue freedom of navigation was threatened, she said.
The United States has been strengthening its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and holding frequent military exercises with China’s rivals, while hyping the threat from China, Hua told a daily news conference.
Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.