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US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, in Washington last month. Photo: TNS

South China Sea: US will ensure ‘all nations can benefit’ from resource-rich international waters, top navy admiral says

  • Admiral Michael Gilday told a media round table in Singapore that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was ‘enforceable’ and ‘unambiguous’
  • The top US navy officer’s comments follow the Pentagon chief’s reiteration that Washington views China’s South Sea claims as illegitimate
International law and legal customs that govern the high seas have the full support of the United States, which will work with partners in Asia to ensure that all nations can “equitably” benefit from marine resources, the US navy’s top admiral said on Wednesday.
The comments in Singapore by Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, came a day after US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin underscored Washington’s long-standing position that China’s vast claims of the South China Sea had no basis in international law.
Gilday, speaking during a media round table, said the US Navy operated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), adding that the law was “enforceable”, “unambiguous” and had lifted societies out of poverty.

The US, unlike China, is not among the 168 nations that have ratified the 1982 law, but abides by it and views it as the customary law of the high seas.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

Among other things, Unclos standardised how countries demarcate their territorial seas, up to 12 nautical miles from their coasts, and more expansive exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that extend up to 200 nautical miles. States have sole rights to drill, fish and mine in their respective EEZs.

Southeast Asian states that dispute China’s sweeping “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea say it is in clear contravention of Unclos; Beijing has countered by saying it has “historic rights” over the waters.

“[Unclos] essentially allows the equitable use of international waters, including the seabed and resources in the ocean, so that everybody can benefit from them,” Gilday said, when asked if the US navy supported regional states’ legal rights in their EEZs.

“The aim of the US Navy out here in the Western Pacific is to work alongside … our allies and partners to enforce those international laws and to make sure that all nations can benefit; that all economies and all people that want to use them have unfettered, open access to the seas and the airways above them.”

In the 30-minute session, Gilday also referenced Unclos when asked whether the US Navy had specific plans to do with China’s hardening policy towards self-ruled Taiwan, which it views as a renegade province.
We are trying not to be provocative but then again, we want to uphold international law
Admiral Michael Gilday, US Chief of Naval Operations

“We continue to operate in the Western Pacific on a day-to-day basis … our ships are stationed out here in the Pacific and so on any given day, we’ve got about a third of the navy out at sea, and so we try to maintain a sizeable presence in the South China Sea and in areas of the Western Pacific,” Gilday said.

“In fact, part of the reason [we are] here today … [is] to really underscore the importance of reinforcing a rules-based international framework that is grounded on the UN Law of the Sea.”

Asked about the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the possibility of a military build-up in the disputed waterway, Gilday said he did not see the situation as “close to a boiling point”.

Chinese ships, aircraft in ‘parallel escalation’ off Malaysia: US think tank

“We are trying not to be provocative but then again, we want to uphold international law,” he added.

Gilday also addressed the rotational deployment of the US Navy’s once beleaguered class of littoral combat ships (LCS) to Singapore.

The vessels have a shallow draft and are envisaged as being ideal for Asia’s busy and disputed waters but for some years were plagued by multiple problems including bloated cost, design and questions about the warships’ ability to survive in combat.


More footage emerges from 2018 near collision of US and China warships in South China Sea

More footage emerges from 2018 near collision of US and China warships in South China Sea

Four LCSs are currently designated for rotational deployment out of Singapore.

Gilday said there were no plans to increase this number and lauded the current operations as “a solid operating model”.

“In the future, I would like to see more LCSs operating in the Western Pacific but we have not yet settled on what the basic model might be for those ships,” he added.

Gilday, who was sworn in as the US Navy’s top officer in 2019, was in Singapore for an introductory visit and to attend the International Maritime Security Conference.

US committed to ‘constructive’ ties with China despite Asia stability concerns: Pentagon chief

The admiral’s Singapore visit coincided with Defence Secretary Austin’s pit stop in the city state from Monday to Wednesday, as part of his three-nation Southeast Asian tour.

In a lecture organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Austin said while President Joe Biden’s administration sought a “constructive, stable” relationship with China, it would “not flinch when our interests are threatened”.

He said Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea – estimated to hold about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – had “no basis in international law”, adding that the assertion “treads on the sovereignty of the states in the region”.