TOKYO — U.S.-Chinese tensions over the South China Sea will ratchet up another notch this weekend, when Secretary of State John Kerry plans to confront top officials in Beijing to protest China’s growing territorial claims in the strategic waters.
The two nations are playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse as the U.S. military responds to a massive island-building campaign by China in one of the world’s most crucial and hotly contested waterways.
This week, Chinese warships closely shadowed a new, high-tech U.S. Navy warship during a patrol through a group of islands claimed all or in part by China and five other countries.
Although the encounters near the Spratly Islands were described by the commander of the USS Fort Worth as “professional,” U.S. officials are concerned China could use the new islands as bases from which to restrict air and sea traffic in the region.
In a toughly worded statement this week, the State Department dismissed China’s island-building as a territorial claim and said the U.S. government is determined to preserve freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the airspace above it, as is allowed under international conventions.
“International law is clear that land reclamation cannot change a submerged feature into an island that is entitled to maritime zones controlled by a nation,” the department said.