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On eve of Kerry visit, China chides US over South China Sea

BEIJING (AP) — China on Friday reaffirmed that it will defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, on the eve of a visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is expected to raise America’s objections to Beijing’s actions.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters China won’t remain passive if its interests come under attack.

“I would like to stress again that China’s determination to defend national sovereignty and its legitimate rights and interests is unswerving,” Hua said. “We will adopt stern measures to counter any acts that will pose provocations and threats against China.”

Beijing this week responded angrily to a Wall Street Journal report which cited anonymous U.S. officials saying that Washington is considering sending military ships and planes to challenge Chinese claims to islands it is building in the South China Sea.

China has rattled the region with its assertive claims in the South China Sea, where islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian governments. China has reclaimed about 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of dry land in the Spratly island groups since 2014 that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes, according to U.S. officials.

American officials say Kerry will carry a message that China’s large-scale land reclamation and general behavior in the South China Sea will hurt China’s image and foreign relations, including with the U.S.

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 Chinese President Xi Jinping in the fall.

Also Friday, state broadcaster CCTV ran an interview with China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, in which he lashed out what he described as Washington’s hypocrisy and confrontational attitude. China says the U.S. ignores improvements it says other claimants are also making on their island holdings.

“The Cold-War mentality, which is prone to the use of force to resolve disputes, is already outdated,” Cui said.

It’s not clear whether or when the U.S. might begin sending planes and ships within the 12 nautical mile (22.2-kilometer) territorial limit surrounding China’s island claims — or how exactly Beijing might respond.

However, the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth and its MH-60R Seahawk helicopter conducted patrols in seas and airspace near the Spratlys this month, a first for a ship of that class, the Navy said in a report on its website.

During the patrols, the ship encountered several Chinese navy warships and communicated with them using an agreed set of protocols to avoid misunderstandings, it said.

The Fort Worth’s encounters with Chinese ships “continue to be professional,” commanding officer Cmdr. Matt Kawas was quoted as saying.

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