The United States will increase its freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea amid worries over China’s military buildup in the disputed waters, a senior Pentagon official said.
“We will be doing them more, and we’ll be doing them with greater complexity in the future and … we’ll fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Navy’s Pacific Command, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
“We must continue to operate in the South China Sea to demonstrate that that water space and the air above it is international,” Harris said.
On Tuesday, Harris said China was “changing the operational landscape” in the South China Sea by deploying missiles and radar as part of an effort to militarily dominate East Asia.
China is “clearly militarizing the South China Sea … You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise”, Harris said in comments that coincided with a visit to Washington by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
China says its military facilities in the South China Sea are “legal and appropriate” and on Tuesday, in an apparent reference to US patrols, Wang said Beijing hoped not to see more close-up reconnaissance, or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers.
Harris, asked what more could be done to deter militarization, said the US could deploy more naval assets, although there were significant “fiscal, diplomatic and political hurdles” in the way of stationing a second aircraft carrier group in the region.
“We could consider putting another [attack] submarine out there, we could put additional destroyers forward …there are a lot of things we could do, short of putting a full carrier strike group in the Western Pacific,” he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Harris’s comments came a day after he said China had deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea’s Paracel chain and radars on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly islands further to the south.
On Tuesday, his command said China’s repeated deployment of advanced fighter aircraft to Woody Island was part of a disturbing trend that was inconsistent with Beijing’s commitment to avoid actions that could escalate disputes.
Last month, a US Navy destroyer carried out a patrol within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, a move China called provocative.
The US has also conducted sea and air patrols near artificial islands China has built in the Spratlys, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.
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