WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to China and South Korea for a weekend of meetings that will focus on security concerns and trade.
Kerry leaves Washington on Thursday for Beijing, where he will press Chinese authorities over what Washington believes are their provocative actions in the East and South China seas. His visit on Saturday will also set the stage for annual U.S.-China economic and strategic talks this summer and a trip to the U.S. by China's president in the fall.
While Kerry's agenda will be broad, rising tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over maritime disputes are likely to dominate his discussions with senior Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the country's top military officer. Concern is growing in Washington and elsewhere that Beijing is building artificial islands to assert military control over the disputed areas.
American lawmakers and Asian nations are pressing the administration for a more robust response to China's actions.
U.S. officials said this week Kerry would be carrying a message that China's large-scale land reclamation and general behavior in the South China Sea will hurt China's image and its relations with its neighbors and, potentially, with the United States itself.
China has rattled the region with its assertive claims both over islands held by Japan in the East China Sea, and in the South China Sea, where islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian claimants. China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014 that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes, according to U.S. officials.
China claims the islands are its territory. Its Foreign Ministry on Wednesday voiced serious concern about a Wall Street Journal report, which cited anonymous U.S. officials, that the U.S. is considering sending military ships and planes to challenge Chinese claims to islands it is building.
Obama administration officials have declined to comment on the report, and on whether the U.S. was considering a demonstration of freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of the islands' notional territorial zone. But they have said many of the features claimed by China in the disputed Spratly island chain are submerged and do not carry territorial rights.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, told Congress this week that no matter how much sand China piles up on reefs, it can't "manufacture sovereignty." He said the U.S. is calling for restraint on territorial disputes, and "diplomacy will continue to be our instrument of first resort."
Russel maintains that China's provocative actions had hurt its standing. He cited recent, thinly veiled criticism of China by the Southeast Asian bloc and a legal challenge brought by the Philippines. The United States is "increasingly in demand" as a guarantor of security in the region, he said.
"If the Chinese strategy was to freeze us out, it has backfired," Russel said.
From Beijing, Kerry will travel to the South Korean capital of Seoul on Sunday amid fresh fears of North Korean belligerence following reports it has tested a new type of ballistic missile and executed its defense minister. South Korea's president is due to visit Washington in June.
On Wednesday, South Korea's spy agency said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his defense chief executed with an anti-aircraft gun for complaining about the young ruler, talking back to him and sleeping during a meeting Kim presided over. The allegation, if true, adds to concerns about the erratic nature of Kim's rule, particularly after Pyongyang claimed over the weekend that it successfully test-fired a newly developed ballistic missile from a submarine.
Those actions come despite a recent diplomatic overture to North Korea from the United States to discuss a resumption in denuclearization talks that have been stalled for the past three years.
The U.S. quietly proposed a meeting with North Korea this January, before the U.S. and South Korea began annual military exercises that North Korea regards as a provocation. The two sides, however, failed to agree on who could meet and where.
Kerry is to deliver a speech on cyber security and related issues in Seoul on Monday after his meetings with South Korean officials. Both North Korea and China pose major cyber security challenges and Kerry will use the opportunity to lay out US efforts to combat the threats and to stress the importance of free and open internet, U.S. officials said.
Kerry will round out his trip in Seattle, Washington, on his return to the U.S. to deliver remarks on a proposed pan-Pacific trade pact.