Obama calls for more dialogue with Beijing
Avoiding conflict is paramount, president says
WASHINGTON - As tension rose over a US-China sea dispute, President Obama met China's top diplomat yesterday and stressed the need for more frequent and intense communications to avoid military confrontations that could upset a relationship the US considers crucial to solving global crises.
The United States is not giving in to China's demand that it cease naval surveillance in the disputed South China Sea. But Obama told Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China during an Oval Office meeting that it is crucial to raise the level of US-Chinese military-to-military talks "in order to avoid future incidents," the White House said.
The US Navy has sent a destroyer to escort the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed submarine hunting ship that Chinese vessels confronted last weekend, a defense official said yesterday.
Yang, in comments before the White House meeting, did not address the naval incident.
He called for a "broader and deeper" level of US-Chinese cooperation on dealing with nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea, climate change, trade and economic issues, and an assortment of hotspots around the world.
"Confrontation hurts both sides," Yang said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The two countries, he said, should "shelve differences" that cannot be immediately resolved and focus on cooperation.
The White House said Obama and Yang also talked about the international financial crisis, North Korea, and Darfur.
The United States said its ship was operating legally in international waters, but China said the ship was violating Chinese law by conducting surveillance too close to the Chinese coastline.
The United States said five Chinese ships improperly surrounded and harassed the Impeccable off Hainan Island on Sunday.
Yang also met with Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, a retired US Marine Corps general.
Jones, the White House said, also raised the confrontation.
In its first public comment on the episode, China's Defense Ministry said yesterday that the Impeccable was operating illegally inside China's exclusive economic zone when it was challenged by three Chinese government ships and two Chinese-flagged trawlers.
"The Chinese side's carrying out of routine enforcement and safeguarding measures within its exclusive economic zone was entirely appropriate and legal," ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said in a statement faxed to reporters.
"We demand the United States respect our legal interests and security concerns, and take effective measures to prevent a recurrence of such incidents," Huang said.
At the State Department, spokesman Robert Wood said the United States, "with regard to this particular incident, was clearly operating in international waters. We were respecting international law. We will continue to do that."