A top US navy official will begin a four-day visit to China on Sunday as the two nations look to reduce tensions amid increasing geopolitical and military rivalry.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson will meet his counterpart, Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, and other members of China's Central Military Commission during a visit to Beijing and the eastern city of Nanjing, which runs through Wednesday, the US navy said in a statement on Friday.
The purpose of the trip " Richardson's second to China as head of operations " is to "continue a results-oriented, risk reduction focused dialogue between the two militaries", the statement said.
It comes at a time as Beijing and Washington are engaged in a multipronged dispute over trade, technology and the South China Sea. The latter is one of the world's most valuable waterways and Beijing's increasingly aggressive stance within it has stoked fears of a major power clash between China and the US.
"I am looking forward to this trip," Richardson was quoted as saying in the statement. "A routine exchange of views is essential, especially in times of friction, to reduce risk and avoid miscalculation. Honest and frank dialogue can improve the relationship in constructive ways, help explore areas where we share common interests, and reduce risk while we work through our differences."
Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said the admiral's visit could help to strengthen military ties and avoid miscalculations between the two navies, especially as Beijing deals with the challenge of an increased US naval presence in the region through its more frequent patrols.
"The US' close-in surveillance and freedom of navigation strategy pose a grave threat to China's offshore waters and its core interest areas, like the Spratlys and Paracels," he said.
China wanted to make clear the significance of these areas so that conflicts could be avoided, he said.
"Even though the two sides are unlikely to reach consensus, it is necessary to exchange views on their respective positions," Song said, adding that Beijing might also seek to highlight its military transparency when Richardson visits Nanning, which is home to the headquarters of China's Eastern Theatre Command.
Despite strong opposition from Beijing, the United States and its allies Britain, Australia and France have increased their freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea over the past year in a show of their commitment to maritime free passage.
In one of the latest patrols, the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell on Monday sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Paracel chain in what the US Pacific Fleet said was an operation to "challenge excessive maritime claims".
China took a different view, with the foreign ministry describing the patrol " which took place as trade negotiators from the two sides were locked in talks in Beijing " as "provocation", adding that military ships and aircraft had been dispatched to issue a warning.
Song said it was also possible that while Richardson was in the country, Beijing might invite him to attend a fleet review on April 23 off the coast of Qingdao in eastern China to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its navy.
The USS Fitzgerald visited Qingdao for the 60th anniversary event in 2009.
"Beijing might also talk to Richardson about rejoining the Rim of the Pacific Exercise after it was disinvited from the event in May," he said.
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