US warships to visit Spratlys 'twice a quarter' in South China Sea but 'pose no threat'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 9:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 6:25pm

The US Pacific Command commander Admiral Harry Harris said freedom of navigation operations by the US navy should not be viewed as a threat after a US warship challenged China’s territorial assertions in the disputed South China Sea last week.

Harris made the comment in Beijing where he kicked off a three-day official visit starting from Monday. His remark came after a Pentagon official revealed that the US Navy plans to conduct regular patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea.

"We’ve been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no one should be surprised by them," Harris said at a Beijing university, in comments released by the US military.

"I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation."

Harris reiterated that the US takes no position on competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea and encourages all claimants to solve disputes peacefully, without coercion, and in accordance with international law.

That’s the right amount to make it regular, but not a constant poke in the eye.
US Navy source

Harris has been highly critical of Beijing’s island building in the Spratly archipelago, telling an Australian think tank earlier this year that China was using dredges and bulldozers to create a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea.

The US Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about US rights under international law, another American defence official said.

“We’re going to come down to about twice a quarter or a little more than that,” said the official, who was not authorised to speak publicly about Navy operational plans.

“That’s the right amount to make it regular, but not a constant poke in the eye. It meets the intent to regularly exercise our rights under international law and remind the Chinese and others about our view,” the official said.

However, the two so-called freedom-of-navigation operations in the region each quarter will just include one inside China’s man-made islands in the Spratly island chain, according to the Wall Street Journal, which also cited sources from the Pentagon. 

READ MORE: Chinese jets training with missiles fly by disputed South China Sea waters near Vietnam in new response to US warships

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said earlier there would be more demonstrations of the US military’s commitment to the right to freely navigate in the region.

“That’s our interest there. It’s to demonstrate that we will uphold the principle of freedom of navigation,” Rhodes told an event hosted by a media organisation.

Rhodes’ comments came a week after a US guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea in October.

China’s naval commander last week told his US counterpart that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its “provocative acts” in the disputed waterway.

The USS Lassen’s patrol was the most significant US challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around artificial islands it has built in the Spratly Islands archipelago.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion of world trade transits every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan all have rival claims.

Rhodes said the goal in the dispute was to come to a diplomatic framework to resolve these issues.

READ MORE: Floodgates opening: China dealt fresh blow in South China Sea disputes as Hague court to look into half of Philippines' claims against country

Tension and wrangles between Beijing and Washington over the South China Sea issues have not brought any impact to the two countries’ high level talks.

The state-run news agency Xinhua reported that President Xi Jinping met with a US delegation led by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the fifth meeting of the China-US Track Two High-Level Dialogue in Beijing on Monday.

The dialogue is a gathering for dozens of prominent retired diplomats and officials from both countries.

The line-up on the US side also include former secretary of state George Schultz, former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, former US trade representative Carla Hills, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, former U.S. assistant to the president for national security affairs Stephen Hadley and Thomas Donilon on the mission.

Xi recalled his visit to the United States in September, reiterating that it was the common interest of the two countries and their people to build a relationship based on non-conflict, non-confrontation and mutual respect, Xinhua said.

Kissinger suggested the two nations build their relationship by strengthening dialogue, deepening mutual understanding and boosting cooperation.