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U.S., China Navy Heads Talk After State Media Threatens Attack on U.S. Ships

The heads of the Chinese and American navies discussed the United States’ passing of a missile destroyer through international waters in the South China Sea on Thursday, according to American officials.

The meeting follows a series of incendiary comments by Chinese officials and editorials in state-run media condemning the U.S. Navy for sailing near the Spratly Islands, a disputed territory China claims as its own.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Admiral John Richardson, the head of American naval operations, and Chinese Navy Chief Admiral Wu Shengli would teleconference on Thursday as a means for China to address its objections to the presence of American vessels in the South China Sea on a one-on-one basis. Their meeting is scheduled to last an hour.

Reuters confirmed the meeting with U.S. officials, but received comment on the matter only from the Chinese government, which noted that Wu is expected to give Richardson the nation’s “solemn position on the US vessel’s entry without permission.” American officials reject the notion that they must ask China for permission to navigate international waters.

Following the call, little information regarding the content surfaced:

Few details were released following the call, other than to confirm the admirals spoke about freedom of navigation operations, the relationship between the two navies, pending port visits, senior leader engagement, and the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue.

The meeting follows the voyage of the USS Lassen this week, which sailed peacefully within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands, encountering no resistance and prompting no reports of disturbances in the region. The Chinese government claimed it monitored the ship when it entered the region. China is currently embroiled in territorial disputes over the greater South China Sea with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan; Vietnam, in particular, objects to China’s usurping territory in the Spratly Islands.

For the past year, China has been illegally constructing artificial islands near the Spratly Islands, destroying up to 17 reefs in the region to construct military facilities. China has denied the facilities are a threat to the region. The United States has consistently been critical of this policy and attacks on Vietnamese and Philippine ships that enter territory China has decided belongs to Beijing. Shortly before the Lassen’s voyage, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced American intentions to make “routine” missions such as that one, and warned that Americans will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

“If any country thinks that, through some gimmicks, they will be able to interfere with or even prevent China from engaging in reasonable, legitimate and legal activities in its own territories, I want to suggest those countries give up such fantasy,” Chinese Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said of the Lassen trip. Beijing summoned the American ambassador to China following the incident, as well, condemning the Lassen’s trip as “extremely irresponsible.”

Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, made a similar statement to CNN: “I think what the United States is doing is a very serious provocation politically and militarily.”

Chinese state-run media have been even more directly confrontational towards the United States on the matter. Xinhua published an editorial Wednesday warning that “use of force” was possible against American vessels should they choose to pass through the region without notifying Chinese authorities. It also warned China could choose to ram into American ships and sink them. “The U.S. should not be overconfident about its ability to steer clear of collision,” it read. On Thursday, Xinhua quoted experts claiming the Lassen’s activity specifically did not fit the definition of “innocent passage,” though they did not elaborate on why.

American officials have been clear in their intentions to continue such missions. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift told media on Thursday his team is “ready” for similar operations. “We have the resources to support whatever those policy decisions are and whatever policymakers may ask us to do to demonstrate the U.S. resolve with respect to the operations that we conduct in the South China Sea,” he stated.

Admiral Richardson himself, speaking to Defense News, made clear the American position that the South China Sea is “everybody’s sea.” I would advocate for a system that is inclusive, that levels the playing field as much as possible. That doesn’t talk in terms of my sea or your sea. That is everybody’s sea,” he said. “You know 30 percent of the world’s trade goes through the South China Sea. Nobody owns that. It’s open. It’s international waters.”

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