WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will leave China "in absolutely no doubt" about Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits Beijing this weekend, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.
Setting the scene for what could be contentious encounters with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, the official said Kerry would warn that China's land reclamation work in contested waters could have negative consequences for regional stability - and for relations with the United States.
On Tuesday, a U.S. official said the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
China's Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Beijing was "extremely concerned" and demanded clarification.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told a Senate hearing the United States had right of passage in areas claimed by China. "We are actively assessing the military implications of land reclamation and are committed to taking effective and appropriate action," he said, but gave no details.
Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the United States, responded by warning Washington not to interfere in the South China Sea dispute and rebuked it for "double standards" in its criticism of Beijing, state news agency Xinhua said on Thursday.
"Just who is creating tensions in the South China Sea?" Cui was quoted as saying. "In the past few years, the United States has intervened in such a high-profile way. Is that to stabilize the situation or to further mess it up? The facts are out there."
Cui, in an interview with Chinese media in the United States on Wednesday, noted that some countries had already begun reclaiming land on reefs that Beijing says belong to China, but the United States had not singled them out.
On the Pentagon's plan to send military aircraft and ships to the South China Sea, Cui "stressed that many things in the world cannot rely on a show of force to solve them and that the knee-jerk 'Cold War' mentality to use force is outdated".
The senior State Department official said "the question about what the U.S Navy does or doesn't do is one that the Chinese are free to pose" to Kerry in Beijing, where he is due on Saturday for meetings with civilian and military leaders.
Kerry's trip is intended to prepare for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month in Washington and Xi's expected visit to Washington in September. But growing strategic rivalry rather than cooperation look set to dominate.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that freedom of navigation did not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country's territorial waters or airspace at will.
The State Department official dismissed the idea that constructing islands out of half-submerged reefs gave China any right to territorial claims.
"Ultimately no matter how much sand China piles on top of a submerged reef or shoal ... it is not enhancing its territorial claim. You can't build sovereignty," he said.
He said Kerry would "reinforce ... the very negative consequences to China's image and China's relationship with its neighbours on regional stability and potentially on the U.S.- China relationship from their large-scale reclamation efforts and the behaviour generally in the South China Sea."
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
Last month, the U.S. military commander for Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China could eventually deploy radar and missile systems on the islands it is building in the Spratly archipelago that could be used to enforce an exclusion zone should it move to declare one.
The U.S. official who spoke on Tuesday said U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had requested options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the reefs China has been building up.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced a strategic shift toward Asia in 2011 in response to growing Chinese power and influence, but critics have questioned his commitment to this "rebalance" given U.S. security distractions elsewhere in the world and stretched resources.
News of the possibly tougher U.S. stance came as the key economic pillar of the rebalance suffered a blow at the hands of Obama's Democrats in the U.S. Senate, who blocked debate on a bill that would have smoothed the path for a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
Failure to clinch an agreement could damage Washington's leadership image in Asia, where China has been forging ahead with a new Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) seen as a challenge to U.S. global financial leadership.
Addtional reporting by Phil Stewart and David Alexander, and Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Emily Stephenson, W Simon, Christian Plumb, Chris Reese and Alex Richardson