China naval chief says minor incident could spark war in South China Sea

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BEIJING/WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - China's naval commander told his U.S. counterpart that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its "provocative acts" in the disputed waterway, the Chinese navy said on Friday.

Admiral Wu Shengli made the comments to U.S. chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson during a video teleconference on Thursday, according to a Chinese naval statement.

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The two officers held talks after a U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing's man-made islands in the contested Spratly archipelago on Tuesday.

China has rebuked Washington over the patrol, the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits China effectively claims around its seven artificial islands in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

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"If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war," the statement paraphrased Wu as saying.

"(I) hope the U.S. side cherishes the good situation between the Chinese and U.S. navies that has not come easily and avoids these kinds of incidents from happening again," Wu said.

Speaking earlier, a U.S. official said the naval chiefs agreed to maintain dialog and follow protocols to avoid clashes.

See photos of the disputed waters and training exercises held there​:

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Disputes over islands in the South China Sea
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China naval chief says minor incident could spark war in South China Sea
This areal photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Monday, May 11, 2015. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, has flown to Pag-asa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 3, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - MARCH 17, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression #2 of 3. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 2 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 1 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
Map locates mad-made islands in South China Sea; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
In this April 8, 2008, file photo, guided missile destroyer USS Lassen arrives at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit. Just two days after the USS Lassen sailed past one of China's artificial islands in the South China Sea in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims, Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Yang Yujun said Thursday that China will take "all necessary" measures in response to any future U.S. Navy incursions into what it considers its territorial waters around the islands. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
Philippine and US Marines aboard riverine patrol boats take position during a beach landing as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine and US Marines board riverine patrol boats during a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines maneuver during a live fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Philippine Navy's World War II-vintage warship BRP Rajah Humabon is anchored during the navy's founding anniversary celebration at a naval station in Cavite city, west of Manila on May 25, 2015 with buildings along Roxas boulevard in Manila in the background. The Philippine navy is one of the weakest in the region relying mostly on decades-old, surplus US warships, but the Philippine government has been modernising the navy and other branches of the armed forces in the face of China's increasing aggressiveness in trying to claim most of the South China sea. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. Navy's amphibious assault vehicle with Philippine and U.S. troops on board storms the beach at a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the US and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Philippine Marines take position next to a US Marine assault amphibious vehicles (AAV) during a live-fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines simulate a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises with the US at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Navy's amphibious assault vehicles with Philippine and US troops on board maneuver in the waters prior to storming the beach at a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the U.S. and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Philippine Marines cheer as a U.S. Navy AAV (Amphibious Assault Vehicle) storms the beach during a combined assault exercise facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the U.S. and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
This areal photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows the dilapidated Sierra Madre ship of the Philippine Navy anchored near Ayungin Shoal with Filipino soldiers onboard to secure perimeter in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Modnay, May 11, 2015. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, has flown to Pag-asa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
Philippine Marines watch U.S. Navy amphibious assault vehicles storm the beach during a combined assault exercise facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the U.S. and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
A Filipino resident, center, and soldiers conduct a flag raising ceremony during the visit of Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, to Pag-asa Island in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines Monday, May 11, 2015. Catapang has flown to a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Navy's amphibious assault vehicles with Philippine and U.S. troops on board maneuver in the waters prior to storming the beach at a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the US and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Filipino soldier Tychico Octobre patrols the shore of Pag-asa Island during the visit of Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, to the island in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, western Palawan Province, Philippines Monday, May 11, 2015. Catapang has flown to a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
Filipino environmental activists display placards during a rally outside China's consular office in Manila on May 11, 2015, against China's reclamation and construction activities on islands and reefs in the Spratly Group of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. The group is accusing China of destroying the fragile ecosystem and livelihood of fishermen during their reclamation project. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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Scheduled port visits by U.S. and Chinese ships and planned visits to China by senior U.S. Navy officers remained on track, the official said.

"None of that is in jeopardy. Nothing has been canceled," said the official.

UNPLANNED ENCOUNTERS

Both officers agreed on the need to stick to protocols established under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

"They agreed that it's very important that both sides continue to use the protocols under the CUES agreement when they're operating close to keep the chances for misunderstanding and any kind of provocation from occurring," the U.S. official said.

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Indeed, Wu said he believed the Chinese and U.S. navies had plenty of scope for cooperation and should both "play a positive role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea."

A U.S. Navy spokesman stressed Washington's position that U.S. freedom of navigation operations were meant to "protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law."

Chinese warships followed the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, as it moved through the Spratlys on Tuesday. The U.S. Navy is operating in a maritime domain bristling with Chinese ships.

While the U.S. Navy is expected to keep its technological edge in Asia for decades, China's potential trump card is sheer weight of numbers, with dozens of naval and coastguard vessels routinely deployed in the South China Sea, security experts say.

China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Vietnam and Singapore, while Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan will attend a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Malaysia that U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is also due to attend.

COURT SETBACK

Separately, China suffered a legal setback on Thursday when an arbitration court in the Netherlands ruled it had jurisdiction to hear some territorial claims the Philippines has filed against Beijing over the South China Sea.

The court said additional hearings would be held to decide the merits of the Philippines' arguments. China has not participated in the proceedings and does not recognize the court's authority in the case.

Manila filed the case in 2013 to seek a ruling on its right to exploit the South China Sea waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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China, facing international legal scrutiny for the first time over its assertiveness in the South ChinaSea, would neither participate in nor accept the case at the arbitration court, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said on Friday.

Liu told reporters the case would not affect China's sovereign claims in the seas.

The Philippine government welcomed the court decision.

Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, Manila chief's lawyer in the case, said the ruling represented a "significant step forward in the Philippines' quest for a peaceful, impartial resolution of the disputes between the parties and the clarification of their rights under UNCLOS."

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