BANGKOK — The presence of large numbers of Chinese vessels near islands and islets occupied by the Philippines is “a concern,” a senior US defense official said on Friday.
The Philippine government protested the Chinese ship movements on Thursday after its military monitored more than 200 Chinese vessels from January to March in a disputed area named Sandy Cay, which is near the Philippine-occupied island of Pag-asa.
Asked about the situation while on a visit to Bangkok, Joseph Felter, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, told reporters that the United States was troubled “by any aggressive activity by any country in the South China Sea.”
Aggressive and provocative
“In this case, China’s activities are of concern. It seems to be somewhat aggressive and provocative and we feel that they’re unnecessary and unwarranted,” said Felter, who was in Thailand to attend a meeting of defense officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean.
He noted that the United States did not take a stance on various conflicting claims in the South China Sea. But he said the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific region involved working with allies and partners to keep the seas free and open, and ensure that “no country’s sovereignty is undermined.”
“We expect every country to be able to sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows,” he said.
The Philippines regards a chain of islands and islets, nine of which it occupies, in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea as a municipality it calls Kalayaan under its western province of Palawan. That claim conflicts with the larger territorial claims of China, Vietnam, and three other governments in a long-simmering Asian dispute.
Over the last few years, China has stepped up its territorial claims by turning seven man-made islands it controls into military installations, drawing rebukes from other claimants as well as Washington.
Chinese boats have swarmed around Sandy Cay, a chain of three sandbars between Pag-asa and a Chinese man-made island called Subi, since 2017. Such practice could be meant to pressure other governments into abandoning their islands.
A 2002 accord between China and the 10-nation Asean aims to prevent armed confrontation in the busy waterway, where much of Asia’s oil and trade transit.
Felter said the meetings he attended also addressed the lingering threat from the extremism and the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, and the United States looked forward to working with regional partners on counterterrorism. —AP