A US navy commander on Monday said China’s reported plan to exclude America from military exercises with Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea is unacceptable and a violation of international law.
Vice Admiral Phillip Sawyer, commander of the Japan-based US 7th fleet, the largest forward deployed maritime force in the region, said Washington will oppose any move that will restrict its engagements in the region, particularly in the disputed waters, which is claimed by China nearly in its entirety.
“We are not doing that. We will disagree with that. That is not according to international law,” Sawyer told a selected group of journalists in an interview on board the USS Blue Ridge, which is on a port visit in Manila.
At a Southeast Asian meeting in Singapore last year, a draft communique indicated that China is seeking regular joint military drills with the Association of South East Asian Nations. Without naming the US, China reportedly wants to exclude countries outside the region unless “parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”
Sawyer indicated that the US has no intention to leave the region or scale down its engagement with its allies or cease its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
“We will continue to do it until there are no excessive maritime claims throughout the world,” Sawyer said.
Defying China’s warnings to keep out of the disputes, US military vessels and aircraft have continued to sail and fly over near China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, in a direct challenge to what it calls Beijing’s excessive claims in the resource-rich waters.
Such move sparked angry protests and radio warnings from China.
Sawyer insisted “international waters where goods and commerce flow” should remain open and that “blocking them off illegally should be a concern for the entire world.”
China, which views the South China Sea disputes as a purely Asian matter, is opposed to any foreign intervention, particularly from the US.
Sawyer maintained the US Navy has operated in the region “for over 70 years doing the same type of operations that we do now.”
Washington says it does not take sides in the sea disputes that involve China, the Philippines Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, but stressed that as a Pacific power it has a national interest in freedom of navigation, maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and unimpeded and lawful trade across its sea lanes.
US Freedom of Navigation Operations, Sawyer added, is a defense against excessive maritime claims, providing “security for the area,” which in turn creates “stability.”
“That’s the history we have seen here in the past ever since the end of World War II. This region has prospered because of like-minded countries providing security and keeping international waterways and airways open and free to all,” Sawyer said. “And that is what we should focus on and continue to do in the future so that all countries can benefit from that stability.”