The new US commander of the Pacific Fleet assured allies yesterday that American forces were well equipped and ready to respond to any contingency in the South China Sea, where long-seething territorial disputes have set off widespread uncertainties. Admiral Scott Swift, who assumed command of the Pacific Fleet in May, said the navy might deploy more than the four coastal combat ships it has committed to the region. Swift also disclosed that he was "very interested" in expanding annual combat exercises the US Navy holds with each of several allies into a multi-nation drill, possibly including Japan. Asked how many resources the US military was ready to devote to the South China Sea, Swift told a small group of journalists in Manila that he understood the concerns of America's allies. "The reason that people continue to ask about the long-term commitment and intentions of the Pacific Fleet is reflective really of all the uncertainty that has generated in the theatre now," Swift said. "If we had the entire United States Navy here in the region, I think people would still be asking, 'Can you bring more?'" Territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have flared on and off for years, creating fears that the South China Sea could spark Asia's next major armed conflict. Tensions flared again last year when China began massive island-building on at least seven reefs it controls in the Spratlys. Swift said he was "very satisfied with the resources that I have available to me as the Pacific Fleet commander", adding, "we are ready and prepared to respond to any contingency that the president may suggest would be necessary". The US, Swift stressed, did not take sides but would press ahead with operations to ensure freedom of navigation in disputed waters and elsewhere. He praised Philippine efforts to engage in military exercises with US allies like Japan, which held search and rescue drills for the first time with the Philippine navy on board a Japanese Self-Defence Force P-3C Orion surveillance plane in the South China Sea last month. China condemned the Japanese military drills with Philippine forces. Swift said "multilateralism has always increased stability in my experience".