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In Annapolis, Biden tells Naval Academy graduates they will defend Pacific peace

Vice President Joe Biden charged the Naval Academy's graduating class with helping to guarantee peace in the South China Sea through their military service. He spoke after a week of tension between the United States and China.

Biden, a Democrat, made the remarks as he delivered the commencement address Friday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Some 1,054 graduates of the service academy in Annapolis were commissioned as Navy ensigns or Marine lieutenants.

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The young officers grew up as lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global battle against Islamist terrorism dominated U.S. foreign policy, but they will enter military service as the country's role in the world and the way that battles are fought are rapidly changing.

Instead of street-to-street battles against insurgents and campaigns waged across deserts, the vice president said, the graduates' careers will be defined by the United States refocusing its foreign policy on the Pacific and the re-emergence of great-power relationships as a driving force in international affairs.

While the end of the Cold War brought to a close the last clash between the world's great powers, Biden said, new divisions are appearing. He pointed to China's attempts to assert itself in the South China Sea as well as Russia's aggression at Europe's eastern borders.

"There are new fault lines," Biden said. "These new fault lines will continue to divide the great powers, and they reside in the straits and the sea lanes that you will come to know well."

China has been disputing its neighbors' claims to islands in the South China Sea, attempting to establish what it calls air defense zones hundreds of miles off the coast and building artificial islands to bolster its position and provide space for military installations.

Biden said the United States does not back the claims of any one country over its neighbors but is committed to guaranteeing freedom of navigation and the fair resolution of disagreements between nations.

"Today these principles are being tested by Chinese activities in the South China Sea," Biden said. "Tensions run high. As I speak, they run high, but you will be there to keep the peace."

Biden's message to the Naval Academy class came as the United States is taking a more assertive role in the region, drawing public attention to the Chinese government's actions.

On Thursday, the Navy released videos taken from a P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft showing sand spraying from giant shipboard hoses and China's artificial islands rising from the sea. In the footage, an officer points out a landing strip being built on one of the large sandbanks and concrete plants to supply the building projects.

In audio recordings that the Navy also released, a People's Liberation Army radio operator repeatedly warns the U.S. aircraft to turn back.

"Foreign military airplane you are approaching my military security air," the operator said, speaking in English. "Please go away quickly."

The Navy pilot replied that he was operating in accordance with international law.

The vice president said he recently spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who asked Biden why he always describes the United States as a Pacific power.

"Because we are," Biden said he told the foreign leader. And while the Pacific presents problems and potential avenues for conflict to arise, Biden said it also offers economic possibilities to the United States, and he emphasized the importance of keeping the seas open to the cargo ships that fuel international commerce.

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The commencement ceremony began with a roaring flyover by the Blue Angels display team and a moment of silence for Midshipman Justin Zemser, 20, who was killed last week when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia. His death has been marked throughout the Commissioning Week events.

Biden described Zemser as an honorable man who possessed a quiet strength.

"He would have made a great Navy SEAL, and he will be missed," Biden said. "Our heart goes out to his family."

Biden spoke on a cloudless but breezy morning at the academy's 165th formal graduation ceremony. The graduating class paraded onto the field to a recording of "Pomp and Circumstance," their classmates and family cheering when they saw someone they recognized.

The academy's graduation is rich with tradition, including the departing graduates offering three cheers to the other members of the Brigade of Midshipmen and then tossing their hats into the air to mark the end of the ceremony.

But this year, there was one difference: The 167 women commissioned as Navy ensigns wore a prototype version of a new dress uniform. The all-white outfit features a high collar, and officials hope it will make the male and female officers look more similar.

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