WASHINGTON – China's top military leader blamed the Obama administration's new focus on Asia on Thursday for various disputes in the East and South China seas, saying "some neighboring countries" are using it as a chance to provoke problems.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, People's Liberation Army's Chief of the General Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui also warned Thursday that the U.S. must be objective about tensions between China and Vietnam or risk harming relations between Washington and Beijing. He defended China's deployment of an oil rig in the South China Sea and said Beijing has no intention of abandoning the drilling despite the violent protests it has spawned in Vietnam.
Fang was at the Pentagon to meet with U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. The session comes on the heels of a mob riot targeting Chinese at a Taiwanese steel mill in Vietnam and anti-China protests over Beijing's deployment of a deep sea oil rig about 150 miles off Vietnam's coast.
In response, Vietnam sent a flotilla of boats to the area, which continue to bump and collide with Chinese vessels guarding the rig.
Fang made it clear that Beijing believes the drilling is in China's territorial waters and said, "we cannot afford to lose an inch" of that territory, which has been passed down by ancestors.
Dempsey declined to detail his discussions with Fang but said broadly that they talked about "the tensions in the South China Sea and how provocative actions can lead to confrontation."
Speaking through an interpreter, Fang blamed any provocation on other nations in the region, including Vietnam and Japan. And he said that "some neighboring countries" are using America's so-called pivot to Asia as an opportunity that has "stirred up some of the problems which actually make the South China Sea and East China Sea not so calm as before."
The increased focus by the U.S. on Asia has included an increase in military troops, ships and other assets in the region.
Dempsey described his meetings with Fang as "refreshingly frank and open discussion on our mutual concerns and differing opinions."
"We made note of the ongoing negotiations, and we made note of the alliance obligations of the United States," Dempsey said.
Fang's visit was heralded with a rare full military honors ceremony on the Pentagon's parade field, complete with a U.S. Navy band, formations of troops from all of the services and a 19-gun salute. There have only been four such ceremonies during Dempsey's more than two-year tenure as chairman.
Thursday's meeting was the second between Chinese and U.S. defense leaders in about five weeks.
In Beijing early last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Chinese counterpart exchanged stern warnings over the escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
Wagging his finger, Hagel told Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan that China doesn't have the right to unilaterally establish an air defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea with no consultation. In turn, Wanquan told Hagel that China is prepared to use its military if needed to safeguard its territory.
Both men talked about increased communication and cooperation between China and the U.S. They said they hope to establish a secure teleconference system by this fall so that the two military leaders can communicate more easily. And they said China and the U.S. are exploring the idea of conducting joint military exercises in a third country. They did not say where.