BEIJING — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in China to press Beijing to halt increasingly assertive actions it is taking in the South China Sea that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors.
Amid verbal sparring between U.S. and Chinese officials over land reclamation projects China is conducting in disputed waters, Kerry arrived in Beijing on Saturday for a series of meetings with the communist nation's top leaders.
American officials said this week that Kerry is bringing a message to Beijing that China's large-scale land reclamation and general behavior in the South China Sea hurt China's image and foreign relations, including with the U.S.
China has reacted angrily to suggestions the U.S. may send military ships and planes to challenge Chinese claims to islands it is building. On Friday, Beijing reaffirmed that it will defend those claims and won't remain passive if they are threatened.
The claims have rattled the region, where South China Sea islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian governments. The U.S. says it takes no position on the sovereignty claims but insists they must be negotiated. Washington also says ensuring maritime safety and access to some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes is a U.S. national security priority.
In one disputed area, the Spratly Islands, U.S. officials say China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014 that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes. The U.S. argues that man-made constructions cannot be used to claim sovereignty.
Obama administration officials have declined to comment on reports that it may deploy military assets or that it is considering a demonstration of freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of the islands' notional territorial zone. But they have said many of the features claimed by China in the disputed Spratlys are submerged and do not carry territorial rights, and said China cannot "manufacture sovereignty."
On Friday, China hit back, saying it would be unswerving in defending its national interests.
"I would like to stress again that China's determination to defend national sovereignty and its legitimate rights and interests is unswerving," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters. "We will adopt stern measures to counter any acts that will pose provocations and threats against China."
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.
In addition to the South China Sea issues, Kerry will be looking to make progress with China in other areas, including climate change and cyber security, when he meets President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the country's top military officer.
His visit will also set the stage for annual U.S.-China economic and strategic talks this summer and a trip to the U.S. by Xi in the fall.