US and Chinese officials expressed hopes that a new round of talks would bring them closer to easing their seven-month trade war, but a US Navy mission through the disputed South China Sea cast a shadow over the negotiations in Beijing, Reuters reports.
A USA official said the warships had approached the islands on Monday to counter Chinese claims of domination over the entire South China Sea. The ships sailed close by Mischief Reef, where China has built an airbase on reclaimed land, and the adjacent Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by the Philippines.
He then moved on without taking questions.
Asked if the ships' passage would impact trade talks, Hua said that "a series of US tricks" showed what Washington was thinking. "I believe you all see through these small tricks by the US side", Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
The guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble sailed within 22kms of the Spratly Islands as part of what the US Navy calls a "freedom of navigation operation". "Spruance and Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by worldwide law".
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"The key is whether the US and China can find common ground", said He Weiwen, a former commerce ministry official and now a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, an independent research group.
"Under such circumstances, the US insistence on provocation, creating tensions and destroying the peace and stability of the South China Sea is unpopular", she said in a report by the South China Morning Post.
Observers fear the trade dispute is just one element in the deteriorating relationship between the world's two top economies with top White House officials sharply criticising Beijing for everything from human rights abuses to cyber-warfare.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week said China dispatched nearly 100 vessels to the Spratly chain in an effort to stop the Philippines from building on another feature known as Thitu Reef.
Monday's sail-by is the second USA freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea this year.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it. American warships have also sailed through the strait separating mainland China from democratically run Taiwan.
"China has always respected and safeguarded freedom of navigation and flight based on worldwide laws in the South China Sea, but resolutely opposes any country falsely using these harm the sovereignty and security of coastal countries", Hua said Monday.
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