WASHINGTON — Adm. John Richardson, the US Navy's chief of naval operations (CNO), and Chinese Navy chief Adm. Wu Shengli will speak tomorrow via video teleconference (VTC) — a conversation likely to be concentrated on issues in the wake of the transit Monday of a US destroyer through disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea.
A US official confirmed the discussion will take place.
"This call was not scheduled, but agreed upon between the two naval staffs in light of current events," the official said Wednesday.
Tensions have risen between the two countries after the passage Monday of the US destroyer Lassen through waters in the South China Sea claimed by China.
The Lassen passed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island newly built by China on Mischief Reef near the Spratly Islands. The region is known to the Chinese as the Nansha Islands.
While the move was signaled by US officials ahead of the transit, Chinese reaction has been vehement, with numerous media stories speaking of unwarranted US aggression. China filed a formal protest with the US, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency, and US ambassador to Beijing Max Baucus was summoned to a meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui.
While the political pot has certainly been stirred, relations between the two navies in recent months have been relatively cordial. Former CNO Adm. Jon Greenert in April began what he called the first of a regular series of VTCs with Wu, and Greenert and Richardson spoke via VTC with Wu on Aug. 25, three weeks before Richardson succeeded Greenert in the US Navy's top job.
Standards for the behavior of ships and aircraft at sea when encountering each other were high on the agenda in the first two talks but, the US official said, are "not necessarily something on the agenda for Thursday."
The two naval leaders are, however, expected to discuss freedom of navigation operations and other ongoing naval operations, including military exchanges, the official said.
Several port visits by each country's naval ships to the other country are scheduled, including the expected arrival on Nov. 3 in Mayport, Florida, of a three-ship Chinese naval squadron that is on a world tour. High-ranking US officials, including US Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris and US Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift, are also planning visits to China in coming weeks.
In the Aug. 25 conversation, Wu invited Richardson to visit China, but a trip is not yet scheduled, a Navy source said.
Despite the public rhetoric, the Mayport visit is still on, the US official said.
"We see no reason why it shouldn't occur, and we're not getting voltage from them that makes us think they'd pull out of it," the official noted.
"The navy-to-navy relationship is really independent of the operations we will conduct under international law. The two should not be linked. We steamed through Philippine and Vietnamese-clamed waters during the recent passage, and there's no reason to expect that will affect our relationship with them."
The reason for the transit, the official said, "was to demonstrate that under international law we are able to make that type of passage."
Similar transits are expected in the future, the US official said, although no dates or times were provided. "We expect this to happen more frequently than it has in the past. We do these all over the world all the time."
US dDefense sSecretary Ash Carter, speaking yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was asked about the transits through international waters claimed by China.
"We're doing more at sea. We're doing more in the way of presence," Carter said. "We have said and we are acting on the basis of saying that we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits, whenever our operational needs require it.
Operations in the South China Sea will continue, Carter said, in the weeks and months ahead. "These are operations that we should be conducting normally."
A call for allies to join in South China Sea freedom of navigation operations came Wednesday from a key lawmaker.
"Freedom of navigation is not just an American principle — it is universal," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia and chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee, said in a statement.
"China's unwarranted claims to sovereignty 12 nautical miles from artificial features in the South China Sea impacts US allies and partners just as much, or more, than it does the United States," Forbes said. "The international community has firmly rejected China's specious assertions, and US allies like Australia, Japan and others should follow Washington's lead in conducting freedom of navigation operations to conclusively demonstrate that Beijing's destabilizing behavior has succeeded only in isolating it from its neighbors."