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South China Sea Dispute Likely Focus of Kerry China Visit

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to address the media during a news conference on the sidelines of the of NATO foreign ministers conference in Antalya, Turkey, May 13, 2015.
FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to address the media during a news conference on the sidelines of the of NATO foreign ministers conference in Antalya, Turkey, May 13, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Beijing Saturday for a two-day visit with civilian and military leaders. The key focus of the trip is preparing for upcoming high-level talks between leaders and a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the U.S. later this year. But a growing controversy over China’s massive land reclamation effort in disputed waters of the South China Sea could overshadow Kerry's visit.

In the run-up to Secretary Kerry’s visit, there has been a steady drumbeat of concern from U.S. officials about China’s efforts to build up seven sites in disputed South China Sea waters.

Beijing is constructing a military-sized airstrip on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Islands and has pumped in enough sand at other locations to build a possible second, expanding the total area of the islets and outcroppings by 800 hectares.

According to reports earlier this week, the U.S. Defense Department is considering using aircraft and military ship patrols to ensure freedom of navigation and show how critical Washington feels the area is to global trade.

The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, said China’s provocative actions are hurting its standing, and added at a congressional hearing this week that there is a need to push back on such problematic behavior.

A senior State Department official told Reuters that the issue will be brought up during the visit and that Kerry will leave China “in absolutely no doubt” about Washington’s commitment to freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea.

But how far he will go in making that point is not clear.

William Choong, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Kerry is likely to allude to the issue of patrols during the visit, and if he does, that will spark a strong response from China.

“But, I think in the end, it is a question of how far the U.S. is willing to push, at the risk of escalation,” said Choong.

China and the United States plan to host high-level economic and security talks later this year. And the two are preparing for President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States in September.

Choong said that while the U.S. would be justified in carrying out patrols - even very close to the islands that China is building - Washington will also have to think about the impact its efforts to press the issue will have on higher-level strategic relations.

Wang Dong, a political scientist from Peking University, said it is hard to say whether the issue will overshadow the visit, or whether the two sides will try to play down the issue.

“My own impression is that it seems that this seems to be more of the United States trying to send a deterrent signal to China rather than meaning that the United States will take real action,” said Dong.

Regardless of what happens, the comments from U.S. officials this week have already irked Chinese officials. The Foreign Ministry said Beijing is “extremely concerned” and has asked Washington to clarify reports about possible patrols, a question the U.S. said China is free to raise during the visit.

Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, has accused the U.S. of “double-standards" and resorting to outdated "Cold War" tactics.

Cui told China’s state-run CCTV that everything China is doing is within its sovereign rights and that Beijing has never reclaimed islands on other countries' territory. Cui said that on the contrary, other countries have long been reclaiming land on what he called Chinese islands and yet the United States has said nothing.

China is not the first claimant in the South China Sea to build an airstrip on islands, and in fact it is almost the last; a point Beijing has increasingly made when U.S. officials or others have raised the issue. But no other claimant in the South China Sea has China’s comparable military power or its broad-sweeping claim that it has sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea.