US promises to continue South China Sea patrols to show opposition to ‘illegitimate’ claims
- Senior commander says ‘freedom of navigation’ operations will continue despite recent near-collision with Chinese warship
The US Navy will continue patrolling the disputed South China Sea, a top American commander has said after a Chinese destroyer came dangerously close to an American Navy ship during a “freedom of navigation” sail-by near a Chinese-occupied reef last month.
Admiral John Richardson, who heads US naval operations, said in a news conference with Philippine military officials in Manila on Monday that such patrols highlight the US opposition to “illegitimate maritime claims”.
“We will continue to progress this programme of freedom of navigation operations,” Richardson said. “We do dozens of these operations around the world to indicate our position for … illegitimate claims, maritime claims.”
While Washington has no claims to the strategic waterway, it has declared that freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of the disputes are in the US national interest.
The US has also questioned China’s expansive claims, bringing it into a collision course with Beijing as the countries’ ties deteriorate.
A Chinese destroyer came close to the USS Decatur in late September in an “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” near Gaven Reef in the South China Sea, forcing it to move to prevent a collision, according to the US Pacific Fleet.
US Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt Cmdr Tim Gorman said the Chinese destroyer approached within 41 meters (45 yards) of the Decatur’s bow.
China said the Luoyang, a Chinese missile destroyer, was deployed to identify the US warship and drive it away near Chinese territory.
Gaven is claimed by mainland China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is on a visit to southern Davao city in the Philippines, said in a separate news conference that some “non-regional countries” were stirring up trouble in the disputed waters and “have been showing off their force.”
Wang said China and Southeast Asian nations should guard against foreign interference. China has repeatedly criticised what it says is US meddling in an Asian territorial dispute.
“We shall work together to be vigilant against and prevent interference and disruptions coming from the outside as China and the Philippines and other littoral states of the South China Sea are cooperating to uphold peace and cooperation,” Wang said.
The Chinese and Philippine coastguards have set up telephone hotlines to allow them to communicate rapidly to prevent any conflict from getting out of control in the disputed waters.
Other possible arrangements are being discussed for ships and aircraft, he said.
“Mechanisms of this kind can effectively avoid misjudgment, prevent unexpected incidents,” Wang said. “China is also willing to build similar mechanisms with other claimant states so as to enhance communication and timely handle the emergencies should they happen.”