US military forces will continue to operate in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.
Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson reaffirmed the US stance during a visit to a Chinese naval base Wednesday, Reuters reports.
China has refused to recognize a ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague that invalidated its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.
It refused to take part in the proceedings brought by the Philippines.
China has repeatedly blamed the US for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than US$5 trillion of trade moves annually.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims, of which China’s is the largest.
The United States has conducted freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands while China has been bolstering its military presence there.
Richardson underscored the importance of “lawful and safe operations in the South China and elsewhere professional navies operate”, during a meeting with Yuan Yubai, commander of the Chinese North Sea Fleet.
“The US Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all. This will not change.”
Freedom of navigation patrols carried out by foreign navies in the South China Sea could end “in disaster”, a senior Chinese admiral said over the weekend.
State news agency Xinhua warned of “unwanted problems” unless countries outside the region stay out of the South China Sea issue.
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