U.S., China security leaders spar over jet maneuvers

BEIJING (Reuters) - Top U.S. and China security officials disagreed this week over what the United States said was China’s intercept of a U.S. Navy patrol plane near the southern island province of Hainan.

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, on a three-day visit to Beijing, told several senior Chinese officials that China must halt the “dangerous intercepts”, senior Obama administration officials said.

However, General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, called on the United States to “reduce and ultimately cease naval and aerial reconnaissance activities near China”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The row began in August when the United States complained that a Chinese military aircraft had launched a risky intercept of a U.S. Navy patrol plane in international air space. The Chinese pilot flew a few yards from the U.S. plane and performed acrobatic maneuvers around it, the Pentagon said.

China said the pilot had done nothing wrong and that U.S. surveillance patrols harm China’s national security interests.

Despite the disagreement over the incident, Obama administration officials called Rice’s dialogue with Chinese leaders on the issue “constructive” and added China took U.S. concerns seriously.

The two countries are working to adopt new confidence-building measures, they said, without elaborating on what the measures would entail.

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Rice met Fan on her first official visit to China as national security adviser, along with President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi.

“When it comes to the issue of unsafe intercepts, this is risky behavior that could imperil the bilateral relationship,” a senior U.S. administration official said.

Hainan is home to several Chinese naval bases as well as a sensitive submarine base.

In public remarks to Fan on Tuesday, Rice alluded to the issue, saying: “we certainly to need to avoid any incidents that could complicate the relationship.”

A more serious aggressive intercept by a Chinese fighter jet in April 2001 in the same area resulted in a collision that killed the Chinese pilot. China held 24 U.S. air crew members for 11 days until the United States apologized.

U.S.-China ties have been impacted by China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China and East China seas, the cause of several territorial disputes between China and U.S. allies including Japan and the Philippines.

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U.S. and Chinese officials held talks at the Pentagon after the intercept incident about rules of behavior for air and maritime activities.

Xi is set to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Beijing in November.

Rice also renewed calls for the U.S. to establish a “level playing field” for U.S. businesses following Chinese regulatory probes into U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. and Microsoft Corp..

“Use of legal means for intimidating and harassing U.S. companies is antithetical to that,” the senior administration official said.

Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan, additional reporting by Michael Martina and Joseph Campbell; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel