The White House said on Thursday that China's new air defense zone over the East China Sea was "unacceptable" and urged Beijing not to implement it, but stopped sort of calling for it to rescind its declaration.
Keeping up U.S. criticism, White House spokesman Jay Carney assailed China for a "dangerous and provocative" move that increased the risk of stumbling into a crisis, and said that was not consistent with the behavior of a major power.
"We, the United States, do not recognize and we do not accept it, and will not change the way the United States conducts military operations in the region," Carney told reporters.
China's decision last month to declare an air defense identification zone in an area that includes islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Japan has triggered protests from Washington as well as Tokyo and Seoul, close U.S. allies.
The United States has made clear it will stand by treaty obligations that require it to defend the Japanese-controlled islands, but it is also reluctant to get dragged into any military clash between rivals Japan and China.
Under the zone's rules, all aircraft have to report flight plans to Chinese authorities, maintain radio contact and reply promptly to identification inquiries. U.S., Japanese and South Korean military aircraft have breached the zone without informing Beijing since it was announced on Nov. 23.
U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to Beijing this week, have put pressure on China but are maintaining a cautious line, apparently seeking to keep tensions from rising further.
At Thursday's White House briefing, Carney dismissed as "semantics" reporters' questions on whether the United States wanted China to rescind its declaration or whether Washington could accept a solution that allowed for the existence of the zone as long as Beijing did not enforce it.
"I have - and others have - made clear it is unacceptable," Carney said. "We call on China not to implement it. I think if you don't implement it, that effectively ... I think that's pretty clear about what our policy is. We do not recognize it."
Carney also urged China to refrain from similar actions in the region and to work with other countries, including Japan and South Korea, on confidence-building measures, including emergency communications channels, "to address the dangers its recent announcement has created."
The top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, said American operations in the region would be unchanged and that Washington made clear to China that territorial disputes should not be resolved "unilaterally and through coercion."
"We all benefit from stability in the Pacific, and I assess that the Chinese are clever enough to realize that," Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Facebook "Town Hall" forum.