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China expresses serious concern about possible US patrols around South China Sea islands

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BEIJING — China on Wednesday expressed "serious concern" about reports that the U.S. is considering sending military ships and planes to challenge Chinese claims to islands it is building in the South China Sea, and said it would resolutely defend what it considered its sovereign territory.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. needs to clarify its stance and that countries should avoid "risky and provocative approaches to maintain the regional peace and stability."

The Wall Street Journal first reported the remarks out of Washington, citing an anonymous official as saying Defense Secretary Ash Carter had asked for ideas about how to address China's moves to reinforce islands it occupies in the strategically vital area. Plans under consideration included sending ships and aircraft to within 12 nautical miles of the built-up islands, the report said.

China's land reclamation will be on the agenda when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Beijing this weekend on a brief trip in Asia. He is due to meet top leaders including President Xi Jinping on Sunday, said a senior State Department official, who was briefing reporters ahead of the trip.

Kerry will tell the Chinese that their large-scale land reclamation and general behavior in the South China Sea will hurt China's image and its relations with its neighbors and, potentially, with the United States, said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity under department rules. He would also convey the U.S. position that creating artificial islands does not accrue sovereignty rights or territorial seas.

The official did not directly address whether the U.S. was considering sending military planes and ships, but said Kerry will tell Chinese officials that the U.S. remains committed to maintaining freedom of navigation and will exercise what it sees as its "legitimate rights" to overflight and movement on the high seas.

While the U.S. military already operates in the South China Sea, crossing the 12 nautical mile (22.2 kilometer) territorial limit around the islands could raise tensions if China chose to respond.

"We express serious concern about the U.S. remarks," Hua told reporters at a daily news briefing, referring to the Wall Street Journal report.

While China upholds freedom of navigation in the area, that "doesn't mean foreign military ships and aircrafts can freely enter into another country's territorial airspace and seas. China will firmly maintain its territorial sovereignty," Hua said.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and its island groups, and has alarmed Washington and its neighbors by ambitiously building up islands, adding about 2,000 acres of dry land that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes.

Six governments in all claim all or part of the region, which is home to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, along with rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea resources.

Chinese officials defend the reclamation, saying it is Beijing's territory and that the buildings and infrastructure are for public service use and to support fishermen, as well as to assert Chinese sovereignty.

It accuses the Philippines, Vietnam and others of carrying out their own building work on other islands.

The U.S. says it takes no position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but has an interest in peace and stability in its busy shipping lanes.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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