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US patrol prompts Chinese protest as trade talks start

US patrol prompts Chinese protest as trade talks start

China accused the US of “tricks” as two US warships sailed through waters claimed by Beijing on the eve of high-level trade talks.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the country’s navy “warned off” off the US warships yesterday as they attempted to assert free navigation rights in the disputed South China Sea.

The ships sailed close by Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), where China has built an airbase on reclaimed land, and the adjacent Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙), which is occupied by the Philippines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) deflected a question about whether the move would affect trade talks expected to get underway today in Beijing.

“You have observed very carefully, and observed a series of tricks by the US side. I believe you all see through these small tricks by the US side,” Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The freedom of navigation patrols were reported earlier yesterday by Reuters, which cited an unidentified US official.

Two guided-missile destroyers passed within 12 nautical miles (22km) of Mischief Reef, a maneuver the US uses to assert that a waterway is free to international transit, the report said.

The US Indo-Pacific Command did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the patrol.

The sail-by came as US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer were headed for Beijing, the latest effort to resolve the two countries’ trade dispute before their tariff cease-fire expires on March 1.

The trade fight has exposed a series of strategic disputes between the world’s two largest economies, ranging from China’s territorial claims in the Western Pacific to accusations of spying.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week said that China dispatched almost 100 vessels to the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in a bid to stop the Philippines from building on another feature known as Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島).

Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana in a statement on Friday called on China to respect Manila’s sovereignty.

China last month urged the US to halt “provocative actions” after a US guided-missile destroyer conducted a sail-by near the Paracel Islands, which are occupied by China and claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

“We respect all countries’ right for freedom of navigation and flight under international law, but we firmly oppose any action to jeopardize the sovereignty and security of countries under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” Hua said yesterday.

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