By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. Navy officials welcomed China's first-time attendance at a 113-nation naval forum on Wednesday but made clear that despite progress in U.S.-Chinese military interaction, more work is needed to avoid incidents that could trigger a crisis.
Chinese navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli's participation in the 21st International Seapower Symposium comes less than a month after Washington formally protested what it said was a "dangerous intercept" of a Navy surveillance plane by a Chinese fighter pilot in international air space off China's coast.
U.S. officials said the Chinese fighter flew within a few yards (meters) of the American P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft several times and then did a barrel roll over it. The U.S. plane was more than 135 miles (215 km) east of Hainan Island, site of a sensitive Chinese submarine base.
China has dismissed the criticism as groundless and said the pilot had kept a safe distance.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the top U.S. Navy officer, said Wu's attendance at the forum in Newport, Rhode Island, was "a great, great signal" following China's decision to send ships this summer for the first time to the U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific exercises, the largest such multinational naval event.
Greenert noted that China hosted a naval symposium in Qingdao in April where more than 20 countries agreed to guidelines on how their navies should react to avoid a crisis at sea, a code Greenert said was "starting to reap some fruit."
But Greenert and U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus also said more efforts were needed to keep interactions between U.S. and Chinese militaries professional to ensure they avoid a miscalculation that could provoke an international incident.
"We want to engage with ... China. We want to engage with them operationally, we want to engage with them in terms of exercises," Mabus told reporters.
"They need to bear the responsibility of a power their size and they need to be a part of this coalition to keep the world's sea lanes open, to ensure freedom of navigation, to make sure that there are no incidents that can escalate," he added.
Mabus said the U.S. military was "very particular" about following accepted protocols so that "everybody knows exactly where our aircraft are, everybody knows exactly where our ships are."
"It's very dangerous, very problematic when pilots from other countries do not follow those," Mabus said. "When they come in too close, they raise the stakes of an incident, of losing life, of losing planes and of stirring up a big international incident. That should not happen."
Greenert said he and Wu had discussed many of the challenges they share, from bringing new ships online to recruiting the right people. But he also said "we disagree on some things," such as some Chinese territorial claims.
"There's a particular area that we disagree on," Greenert said. "We believe though, Admiral Wu Shengli and I, that our job is to make sure there's no miscalculation here, that each others' professional mariners act professionally regardless of governmental or other disputes."
(Editing by Ken Wills)