China urges U.S. to halt surveillance near its shores

BEIJING (Reuters) - China called on the United States to reduce and eventually halt air and sea military surveillance close to its shores after a series of territorial disputes this year.

The request was made during a special session on maritime safety between the two countries’ militaries on Wednesday and Thursday, Xinhua news agency said on Thursday, citing China’s Defense Ministry.

Five times this year, Chinese vessels have confronted U.S. surveillance ships in Asian waters, the U.S. Defense Department said in May. China said the U.S. vessels had intruded its territory. There has since been a sixth incident.

“China believes the constant U.S. military air and sea surveillance and survey operations in China’s exclusive economic zone had led to military confrontations between the two sides,” the ministry said.

“The way to resolve China-U.S. maritime incidents is for the U.S. to change its surveillance and survey operations policies against China, decrease and eventually stop such operations.”

Susan Stevenson, spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, confirmed the request.

“Our position has not changed,” Stevenson said, citing a U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy statement during a June visit to China that the U.S. “exercises its freedom of navigation while putting emphasis on taking care to avoid any unwanted incidents.”

The United States maintains on principle that waters beyond 12 miles offshore are open to all shipping, while China holds that the U.S. should not trespass within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

In March, five Chinese vessels approached the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea about 75 miles from Hainan Island in March, after hassling that ship, as well as the ocean surveillance ship Victorious in the Yellow Sea, in previous days.

In May, two Chinese fishing vessels confronted the Victorious again.

In June, a Chinese submarine collided with an underground sonar array being towed by the destroyer USS John McCain, near Subic Bay in the Philippines.

The most serious recent confrontation between China and the U.S. was in 2001, when a U.S. naval surveillance aircraft flying about 70 miles off Hainan collided with a Chinese fighter and was forced to land on Hainan Island.

Editing by Nick Macfie