SHANGHAI >> The sister ship of a U.S. guided missile destroyer that sailed last month in waters claimed by China is in Shanghai for a weeklong port visit, in a sign that although the United States strongly disagrees with actions by China in the South China Sea, their two navies still value good relations.
U.S. Navy ship, bearing message of good will, docks in China
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The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott H. Swift, had flown to Shanghai on Monday to be on board the visiting ship, the Stethem, when it arrived.
He said he was invited to China a month ago — relatively short notice for such a high-level visit — by a Chinese vice admiral, Su Zhiqian. Their meeting on board the Stethem on Tuesday stretched from a scheduled 30 minutes to two hours, Swift said.
"We acknowledged the policy differences between our two countries, but we have a responsibility as maritime commanders that friction points in policy don’t become friction points at sea," the admiral said in an interview with reporters on the Stethem.
Swift assumed the command of the Pacific Fleet in May, and this is his first visit to China.
"As you would expect in any deepening relationship, you would focus on those areas that you have in competition: It’s the same in my relations with my wife," he said. "I would love it if our whole relationship was built on those areas where we are completely in agreement and collaborative on."
China reprimanded the United States after a guided missile destroyer, the Lassen, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea on Oct. 26, in what the United States said was an operation to demonstrate the freedom of navigation in the strategic waterway.
The Lassen made the voyage on instructions from the White House to show that the United States did not recognize the territorial waters that China claimed around the reef, which is also claimed by several other Asian governments.
China built the reef into an artificial island, complete with a military-size runway, as part of a program to extend its power over the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, however, a senior Chinese official said that Beijing’s efforts to transform low-lying rocks and reefs into islands had actually been modest.
"The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries," a deputy foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, said at a briefing in Beijing. "But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea."
Swift said his conversation with Su concentrated on maritime matters, not policy.
He said the vice admiral did not bring up whether China would introduce an air defense zone over the South China Sea, as it did over the East China Sea in 2013. Countries use such zones to deflect civilian aircraft from other nations for security reasons. And Swift said he did not tell Su if there would be more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
The arrival of the Stethem is part of an annual roster of ship visits negotiated between the United States and China for vessels to dock at each other’s ports. Three U.S. Navy ships have visited China this year, and Chinese ships have visited Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and San Diego recently, a U.S. Navy spokesman said.
"Ship visits are part of the annual U.S.-China military-to-military plan negotiated at the government level," said the spokesman, Cmdr. Clayton Doss.
"Parity and reciprocity are the guiding principles, and like port visits anywhere, these provide opportunities for sailors to interact with their PLA navy counterparts," he said, using the initials of the People’s Liberation Army.
As the Stethem docked at the Wusong military port in northern Shanghai on Monday, Chinese sailors held a banner welcoming it in Chinese and English. That the ship was berthed at a military facility was a first, Swift said. In the past, U.S. naval vessels have docked at Chinese commercial ports.
A Chinese frigate, the Xuzhou, guided the Stethem as it made its way up the channel to the dock.
The crew of the Stethem will conduct drills and search and rescue operations with their Chinese counterparts. Plans also call for teams from both sides to play basketball.
Swift, the second most powerful U.S. Navy officer in the Pacific, is scheduled to travel to Beijing on Wednesday to meet Adm. Wu Shengli, the commander of the Chinese navy.
Swift’s tone on Tuesday was much more subdued than it was during a visit he made to Australia last month, when in an indirect but firm reference to China, he said: "Some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law."
On Tuesday, he discussed the social rapport between the Americans and the Chinese. When he walked into a reception for the U.S. visitors hosted by the Chinese on Monday night, sailors from each side were mixing with one another rather than standing on opposite sides of the room.
"I thought that was a positive development, especially in light of the Lassen," he said.