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Secretary of State John Kerry will leave China in "absolutely no doubt" about Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits Beijing this weekend, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.
Setting the scene for what could be contentious encounters with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, the official said Kerry would warn that China's land reclamation work in contested waters could have negative consequences for regional stability — and for relations with the United States.
On Tuesday, a U.S. official said the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea. China's Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Beijing was "extremely concerned" and demanded clarification.
Kerry's trip is intended to prepare for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month in Washington and Xi's planned visit to Washington in September. But growing strategic rivalry rather than cooperation look set to dominate.
The State Department official dismissed the idea that constructing islands out of half-submerged reefs gave China any right to territorial claims. "Ultimately no matter how much sand China piles on top of a submerged reef or shoal ... it is not enhancing its territorial claim. You can't build sovereignty," he said.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
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