The visit this week by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will not include a meeting at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Ash Carter as originally planned, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.
However, Wang is expected to be confronted by Secretary of State John Kerry on Beijing’s recent deployment of advanced air defense missiles in the South China Sea, a State Department spokeswoman said.
“The secretary will have a very frank conversation with his Chinese counterpart on this issue,” said Anna Richey-Allen, the spokeswoman. “We are concerned that China’s latest move will raise regional tensions.”
Richey-Allen said the U.S. government continues to urge all claimants to clarify territorial and maritime claims under international law and “to commit to peacefully resolve their disputes, including through the use of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms, such as arbitration.”
The Chinese minister comes at a time of heightened tensions over the deployment of advanced Chinese HQ-9 air defense missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea.
The visit, first disclosed Friday by the Washington Free Beacon, is the first this year by Wang, who last week defended the HQ-9 deployment on Woody Island in the Paracel island chain as part of Beijing’s legitimate defense of its claimed territory.
Obama administration officials and military leaders condemned the missile deployment as violating a pledge made last September by Chinese leader Xi Jinping not to militarize disputed islands claimed by China, Vietnam, Philippines, and several other nations.
China for the past several years has been expanding the contested islands mainly at two locations—the Paracels and the Spratlys—with dredging operations that have produced some 3,200 acres of new land.
U.S. officials said China now is building military facilities, including airstrips and deep-water ports on the new islands. China has denied militarizing the islands.
The missiles were first discovered on Woody Island last week and sparked international condemnation from the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, and India.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was asked what message Wang would bring and responded by saying the United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute. She also said the United States of exaggerating the dispute.
“The issue of the South China Sea is not and should not become an issue between China and the U.S.,” she told reporters, adding that the United States should “stop sensationalizing the South China Sea issue, stop hyping up tensions.”
Hua said China’s “limited defense facilities” are an “exercise of [a] self-defense right to which a sovereign state is entitled under international law.”
“It has nothing to do with militarization. It is something that comes naturally, and is completely justified and lawful. The U.S. should view that correctly instead of making an issue of that with deliberate sensationalization,” she said.
Hua then accused the United States of “trying to confuse the public” by challenging the Chinese island military buildup. “There is no difference between China's deployment of necessary national defense facilities on its own territory and the defense installation by the U.S. in Hawaii,” she said.
Hua also blamed the United States for increasing tensions in the region with close surveillance by vessels and aircraft.
The Navy has conducted two warship passes within 12 miles of disputed islands since October in the Paracels and Spratlys and has conducted aerial reconnaissance with P-8 aircraft.
Hua said the U.S. military activities “intensified tensions” in the South China Sea and “is most likely to cause militarization in the South China Sea.”
Wang, the foreign minister, originally was scheduled to meet with Carter, the defense secretary, Kerry, and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice. He will visit Washington from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25.
A Pentagon spokesman said the secretary’s meeting was canceled Sunday due to a scheduling issue. No other defense leaders will meet with Wang, the spokesman said.
A White House National Security Council spokesman declined to comment and said a statement would likely be made after the visit.
Hua, the Chinese spokeswoman, said Wang’s official visit was made after a request by Kerry and would include meetings with other senior U.S. officials. She said only that the two sides would discuss international regional issues of interest.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner also made no mention of the South China Sea militarization dispute in announcing the Wang visit at the department’s press briefing.
“The secretary will use this opportunity to address the full breadth of issues in the bilateral relationship with China, including climate change,” Toner said, noting North Korea and other issues would be discussed.
The Obama administration is said to be reevaluating its policies toward China in response to aggressive activities backed by Beijing.
The Chinese activities include last year’s large-scale cyber espionage attacks, including those against the Office of Personnel Management involving the theft of 22 million sensitive records on federal workers. China’s failure to rein in its fraternal ally North Korea also is said to be a key area of concern.
China also have been engaged in a large-scale buildup of military forces that appears targeted toward preparing for a conflict with the United States over Taiwan, or in the South China and East China Seas.
North Korea raised tensions by conducting an underground nuclear test in January and a long-range missile test this month.
A Chinese envoy, Wu Dei, had been dispatched to Pyongyang to try and prevent the Feb. 7 missile launch that the North Koreans said was a space launch of a satellite. However, Wu returned to Beijing without any indication the North Koreans would refrain from testing.
As a result, South Korea dropped its opposition to the U.S. deployment of an advanced missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
China is opposing the THAAD deployment to South Korea claiming its advanced radar could be used to track and counter Chinese missiles.
Hua repeated China’s opposition to the THAAD deployment that was requested by the U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti in 2014 in response to the growing threat of North Korean missiles.
“We are seriously concerned about the possible deployment of the THAAD system by the U.S. in the ROK, and have made clear China's solemn position with the relevant parties,” she said, using the acronym for South Korea.
“We maintain that countries must not pursue their own security at the expense of others' security interests,” Hua added. “We are firmly opposed to any country's attempt to hurt China's strategic security interests by making use of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”