US commander says South China Sea is no 'exception' to navigation rights

South Korea and other US allies in Asia have welcomed the US Navy's assertion of navigation rights near reclaimed islands controlled by China. 

Andy Wong/AP
Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, left, shakes hands with Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission before their meeting at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The U.S. Navy's challenge last week to China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was not designed as a military threat, the head of U.S. Pacific military forces said Tuesday in a mostly upbeat speech about prospects for preventing U.S.-China disputes from escalating to conflict. (AP Photo/, Pool)

The United States said its military will continue to conduct what it calls routine operations in the South China Sea amid signs of growing support from countries across the region.

Admiral Harry Harris, head of US military forces in the Pacific, said Tuesday that the US naval patrol last week near territory claimed by China was not designed as a military threat. Rather, he said, it was intended to uphold freedom of navigation in international waters.

"Our military will continue to fly, sail, and operate whenever and wherever international law allows,” Adm. Harris said in a speech at Peking University in Beijing. “The South China Sea is not – and will not – be an exception."

The US drew angry protests from Beijing last week when the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-built islands in the contested waterway. 

A top Chinese general reaffirmed his country's disapproval during a high-level bilateral meeting of military officials in Beijing on Tuesday, reports the Associated Press. Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff for China's military, reiterated Chinese maritime claims since "ancient times” while also expressing hope that the two sides could build further trust.

More than $5 trillion in global trade passes through the South China Sea every year. To ensure freedom of navigation in the region, the US Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of the islands about twice every three months, an unnamed defense official told Reuters on Monday.

China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres of land in the Spratly island chain since last year. Last March, Harris accused Beijing of "creating a great wall of sand" and fueling tensions in an area of rival claims by China and five other nations.

The US does not recognize China’s territorial claims, nor those of other claimants, and argues that man-made islands — such as the reclaimed land at Subi Reef where the USS Lassen sailed — do not afford rights to the seas around them. 

"I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation," Harris said Tuesday. "These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law."

Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have widely praised Washington’s hardened stance against China’s claims in South China Sea. The defense minsters of Malaysia, South Korea, and Australia have all voiced their support for last week’s sail-by. So too has Philippine President Benigno Aquino. With the exception of Malaysia, these countries are all US treaty allies.  

“It is our stance that freedom of navigation and freedom of flight should be ensured in this area, and that any conflicts be resolved according to relevant agreements and established international norms,” South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-Koo said Tuesday. Mr. Han’s comments were the strongest public remarks yet by a South Korean official about the South China Sea dispute, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the US and Japan are pushing for the inclusion of concerns about the contested waterway in a statement to be issued after regional defense talks in Malaysia on Wednesday, reports Reuters. The meeting brings together the 10 defense ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations and their counterparts from across the Asia-Pacific, including China and the US. 

Chinese officials have previously objected to holding any discussions about the South China Sea at the meeting.

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