MANILA, Philippines — The United States military intends to further increase sea and air activities over the disputed South China Sea in keeping with its resolve to keep the vital sea lane free and open to maritime and air navigation.
Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the Hawaii-based US Indo-Pacific Command, declared this before the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada where he was one of the key speakers last Saturday.
Davidson pointed out that freedom of navigation by air and sea is of global importance, including those in the South China Sea, where trillions of dollars in commerce transit each year.
“Navigation in those waters will pick up as the US continues to rotate its forces through Singapore and projects air and sea power from bases in Japan,” Davidson said.
China, still enforcing its already invalidated nine-dash maritime and territorial claim to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, has reclaimed seven formerly obscure maritime features in the region.
Over the years, Davidson noted Beijing has transformed these man-made islands into highly fortified forward military bases with its Navy and Coast Guard ships, supported by hundreds of militia vessels disguised as fishing boats, now having an imposing presence in the disputed region.
Currently, he said China wants to draw up a code of conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for operating in those waters.
He urged ASEAN-member states to ensure that such an agreement, if reached, does not restrict their freedom of navigation nor limit their ability to operate in the disputed region for commerce and military exercises.
The US and its allies and partners would be around to fully support ASEAN-members to exercise their right to navigate in the region, he said.
“Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and India have all sailed through those waters and participated in military exercises,” Davidson said.
The US military has been challenging China’s huge military presence in the region through a sustained freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) and overflights.
Davidson said the US has increased its operations in the South China Sea to include the conduct of several exercises in September and October and two FONOPS in the last week or two.
A US Navy destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer on innocent passage sailed close to China’s occupied areas in the Paracels last Thursday, while littoral combat ship USS Gabrille Giffords navigated within 12 nautical miles off Mischief (Panganiban) reef in the West Philippine Sea a day earlier.
At the internal security forum, Davidson also spoke on wider threat from China, noting that Beijing is expanding its military presence beyond the South China Sea.
“They are now operating globally, to include areas around South America, Europe and Africa. There have been more of these global Chinese naval deployments in the last 30 months than in the last 30 years,” the US Navy admiral said.
He added that China has been developing and fielding advanced ballistic missiles and hypersonics.
To counter this, he said, the US is ramping its missile defense systems and developing long-range precision fire as a deterrence.
He concluded his speech by telling his audience that “freedom and support of the international order is worth defending.”