US to operate 'wherever' law allows in South China Sea

Beijing (AFP) - The US military will continue to operate wherever international law allows, a top US admiral said in Beijing on Tuesday, a week after America infuriated China by sailing close to artificial islands it is building in the South China Sea.

"International seas and airspace belong to everyone and are not the dominion of any single nation," Admiral Harry Harris said at the Stanford Center at Peking University.

"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 added, according to a transcript.

Harris is the head of the US Pacific Command and his public declaration in the Chinese capital is a mark of US resolve over the waterway, where Beijing has built up rocks and reefs into artificial islands with facilities for military use.

Last week the US gave a practical demonstration of its policy, sailing the USS Lassen guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations China claims in the disputed Spratly Islands.

Chinese officials rebuked Harris over the action, with the People's Liberation Army chief of general staff Fang Fenghui telling him it had "created a disharmonious atmosphere for our meeting and this is very regretful".

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing that Washington's call for Beijing to stop militarising the South China Sea while sending warships there itself was "an attempt to deprive China of its self-defence right as a sovereign state".

"It is a typical manifestation of hypocrisy and hegemonism," she said.

- 'Frontline forces' -

Washington says it takes no position on sovereignty disputes in the region and the sail-by was intended to protect freedom of navigation under international law, which it sees as potentially threatened by China's activities.

The USS Lassen's mission was part of the US's "routine freedom of navigation operations", Harris said in his speech, intended to "prevent the decomposition of international laws and norms".

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea on the basis of a segmented line that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.

The "ambiguous maritime claims" represented by China's "so-called nine-dash line" pose a challenge to navigation, Harris said.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the sea.

Washington has repeatedly said it does not recognise Chinese claims to territorial zones around the artificial islands.

The contretemps comes as the world's two largest military powers work to keep their cool over the troubled waters.

Harris made some conciliatory remarks, praising US-China ties and pointing out that Chinese and American ships were visiting ports in each other's countries.

"Some pundits predict a coming clash between our nations. I do not ascribe to this pessimistic view," Harris said.

Two days after the USS Lassen's voyage, the chief of US naval operations spoke with his Chinese counterpart via video.

US officials said the call between Admiral John Richardson and Admiral Wu Shengli, who commands the Chinese navy, was "professional and productive".

But China's official Xinhua news agency paraphrased Wu as warning his counterpart of the risk of "a serious situation between frontline forces... or even a minor incident that could spark conflict".

Beijing's response to the USS Lassen sailing appears to have been carefully calibrated, with authorities expressing outrage, summoning US ambassador Max Baucus to protest, and saying they monitored and warned away the vessel -- but without physically intervening.

China's position on the islands is leading many countries in the region "to want to intensify their security cooperation with the United States", US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said on Sunday in South Korea.

The Pentagon chief was in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday for meetings with regional partners as part of America's ongoing strategic "rebalance" toward the Asia-Pacific.

A key theme of the trip is likely to be Beijing's island-building and its wide-ranging sovereignty claims.