After China visit, top Navy officer calls for ‘consistency’ to prevent conflict with Beijing
By CAITLIN DOORNBOS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 18, 2019
TOKYO – The Navy’s top officer on Friday called for consistent actions and messaging between the U.S. and China to prevent unintended conflict in the Western Pacific.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson spoke to reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, where he arrived Wednesday after a four-day visit to China.
“I emphasized the importance of consistent and habitual communication between our two forces with the goal of making sure we deepen our understanding of each other’s intent,” he said of his China visit. “We use this channel to reduce risk — reduce tension.”
Beijing has repeatedly protested frequent U.S. freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South and East China seas near the Paracel and Spratly islands.
China claims sovereignty over those areas, a claim international law does not recognize. The U.S. Navy patrols those areas, it says, to maintain freedom of navigation there.
Beijing has not routinely challenged U.S. patrols, but a Chinese naval vessel in August nearly collided with the USS Decatur near the Spratly Islands. The Chinese vessel came within 45 yards of the destroyer, a maneuver the Navy at the time called “unsafe and unprofessional.”
Richardson on Tuesday said China should not misinterpret the freedom-of-navigation patrols, pointing to the Navy’s long history of such exercises in the region.
“They should not be seen as provocation. In fact, they’re just the opposite,” he said, adding that the patrols should come as no surprise.
Richardson also committed to continuing the patrols with consistency, underscoring the benefits free navigation offers in trade relations.
“This set of rules and security arrangement that has been in place for the last 70 years has supported, and in many ways enhanced, the tremendous growth across the area and the region — the economic growth in which all nations including China have been beneficiaries,” he said. “[We will] not accept policies or actions that threaten to undermine international rule-based order.”
During Richardson’s visit in China, Gen. Li Zuocheng, the chief of the Chinese military’s Joint Staff Department, warned the U.S. not to support an independent Taiwan, according to the South China Morning Post.
“If anyone wants to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will safeguard the national unity at all costs, so as to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Li said in a meeting with Richardson in Beijing, according to the newspaper.
Richardson addressed Li's comment head-on Tuesday, saying he "reiterated very clearly that the United States is committed to the One China policy with respect to Taiwan." The U.S. has operated under the policy acknowledging Taiwan as part of China for nearly four decades.
“We remain opposed to any sort of unilateral action on either side of the state to change that status quo,” he said.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s “China Military Power” report published Tuesday overviewing the country’s growing military capabilities expressed concern that China could launch an attack on Taiwan. The report said Beijing’s interest in reunification with the island “has served as the primary driver for China’s military modernization.”
Richardson told reporters Tuesday that the DIA report is “just facts” and was “not meant as a warning or provocation” to China.
Richardson stopped Thursday at Yokosuka Naval Base, where he met with sailors on the waterfront. While there, he toured the USS Benfold in port and met with 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer to discuss “current and future operations” in the region, according to a Navy statement.
Richardson said he would award Japan’s Chief of Maritime Staff, Adm. Yutaka Murakawa, with the Legion of Merit military award Friday on behalf of the U.S. defense secretary in recognition of his work to help the Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force work together “almost seamlessly.”