The U.S. and China showed no sign of quelling tension in the disputed South China Sea as their top diplomats met in Washington on Tuesday. A leading U.S. military officer told Congress that China was seeking to control East Asia.
But there was progress on another front. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said they were close to agreement on a U.N. resolution to punish North Korea after its recent nuclear test and rocket launch.
China has been reluctant to impose the kind of tough sanctions on its neighbor and traditional ally North Korea that the U.S. has been seeking. But an even more pervasive source of strain in the relationship between the two world powers has been over accusations over militarization in the South China Sea, an important thoroughfare for world trade.
China claims it has a historical right to most of those strategic waters, and has undertaken a massive land reclamation and construction effort on land features although five other Asian governments have territorial claims in the area. The U.S. is not a claimant but says it has an interest in maintaining peace and stability, and freedom of navigation and commerce.
The rhetoric has heated up since it emerged last week that China had Beijing deployed anti-aircraft missiles on a disputed island in the Paracels chain. Then on Monday, a U.S. think tank reported that China has built new radar facilities in the Spratly Islands, which lie further south.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, confirmed Tuesday new radar on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China’s construction and military facilities are changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea.
Harris said that China is militarizing the South China Sea, “and you have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise.”
After meeting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Secretary of State John Kerry said that steps by China, Vietnam and others have created an escalatory cycle.
“Regrettably there are missiles, fighter aircraft, guns, artillery and other things that have been placed in the South China Sea, and this of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade, commerce and use,” Kerry told a joint news conference. He did not elaborate on who had moved fighter aircraft to the region.
Fox News reported Tuesday that China had deployed fighter jets to Woody Island — the location in the Paracels where it had deployed anti-aircraft missiles. Capt. Darryn James, U.S. Pacific Command, did not confirm the report but said China has deployed some of its most advanced fighter aircraft to that island over the last couple of years.
China denies it has aggressive intent. Wang contended that Beijing had shown restraint. He accused other countries of military construction on what he asserted were Chinese reefs and atols.
In a poke at recent U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the region, Wang said China does not want to see, “more close-up military reconnaissance, or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea.”
Harris, however, said he supported regular freedom of navigation operations by the U.S.
Asked what about the strategic goal of China’s military buildup in the region, Harris told lawmakers: “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” When asked if that meant regional control, Harris concurred.
However, Wang and Kerry both stressed the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and China, and expressed hope of reaching agreement soon on a U.N. Security Council resolution that is expected to stiffen international sanctions against North Korea.
Kerry said a draft was being evaluated in both Washington and Beijing, and if approved it would go beyond previous resolutions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. Wang said a resolution could be passed in the “near future.”
It’s been seven weeks since the North’s Jan. 6 nuclear test, which was followed by a Feb. 7 rocket launch. While China has joined in the international criticism, it has balked at imposing sanctions that could threaten the stability of North Korea.
Wang said a resolution alone cannot resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and that dialogue was needed.
He said China was urging a “parallel track” in which there were both talks on denuclearization — the top priority of the United States — and replacing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a formal peace treaty — a key demand of Pyongyang.
The long-standing U.S. position has been that North Korea needs to disarm first, but the Obama administration has recently indicated some flexibility on this point, although it says Pyongyang remains reluctant to resume talks on its nuclear arsenal.
Kerry said Tuesday that North Korea can ultimately have a peace agreement with the U.S. if it will come to the table and negotiate denuclearization.
“We want a negotiated outcome,” he said.
Already this month, the U.S. has taken tougher steps of its own against North Korea, tightening sanctions and announcing it will hold formal talks with its close ally South Korea on deploying a missile defense system that China fears could be used against it as well North Korea.
Kerry said that both Russia and China have expressed concern over the missile defense system. He said the system would not be needed “if we can get to denuclearization.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.