The United States will assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea despite recent warnings issued by China on foreign ships and planes passing through the hotly disputed area, a top defense official said Thursday.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver said Beijing’s growing aggressiveness would not deter the U.S. from exercising the right to peacefully pass through the region.
“We’ll fly, sail and operate where international law allows,” Shriver told a select group of reporters in Manila. “So we’ve seen an increase in this kind of challenge from China, not only directed at us but to others, and we think we need to be consistent and the Chinese need to understand that this kind of challenge will not result in a change of our behavior.”
He said Washington would not allow Beijing to bully other nations by rewriting international law.
His statement came after the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported Philippine aircraft have a specific response from similar Chinese challenges.
Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the Chinese warnings are a daily occurrence.
“Our pilots just [reply]: We are just doing our routine flight on our jurisdiction and territory,” he said, according to the Inquirer.
A BBC reporter who witnessed the Chinese aggression said the warnings to Philippine aircraft were less courteous than similar warnings to U.S. planes.
The Philippines and China have overlapping claims in the potentially mineral rich region, as do Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The South China Sea is considered a flashpoint in the region and while claimants agreed to desist from any actions that would complicate the matter, China has been expanding and militarizing territories it occupies.
During an annual meeting of Southeast Asian diplomats held in Singapore two weeks ago, officials announced China had agreed to a draft of a “code of conduct” to govern actions in the area after three months of negotiations that ended in June. The agreement was hailed as a breakthrough even as diplomats expressed cautious optimism.
Clearly, China wants to expand its control of the sea region by its warnings even as he said it “has no impact or effect” on how the U.S. operates, Shriver said on Thursday.
He said last week’s flight that carried a CNN crew was part of “routine operations in the South China Sea.”
“I think there should be no misunderstanding or lack of clarity on the spirit and the nature of our commitment,” Shriver said, alluding to the Philippine-US mutual defense treaty of 1951.
“We’ll be a good ally, and we’ll help the Philippines respond accordingly,” he said.