Commander of U.S. 7th Fleet urges wider challenge to Beijing’s claims in South China Sea

Reuters, AP

Australia and other countries should follow the U.S. lead and conduct “freedom-of-navigation” naval operations within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of contested islands in the South China Sea, a senior U.S. naval officer was reported as saying Monday.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, was in Australia for high-level talks with defense leaders and has discussed growing concerns over Beijing’s military expansion in the disputed region, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reported.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year and which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

Beijing has been angered by air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near islands China claims. Those have included one by two B-52 strategic bombers in November and by a U.S. Navy destroyer that sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels group last month.

Aucoin told reporters it would be “valuable” if Australia and others sent warships to conduct similar operations within 12 nautical miles of disputed territories.

“What we’re trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions,” Aucoin said, according to the ABC.

“It’s up to those countries, but I think it’s in our best interests to make sure that those sea lines remain open, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

Aucoin, however, said that he is wary of the situation in the South China Sea being painted as a battle between the United States and China, but added the presence of a Chinese missile system on a disputed island will not stop the U.S. military from flying over the region.

Aucoin’s comments come a week after it was revealed that Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the fiercely contested region. The U.S. said the presence of missiles provided increasing evidence of militarization of the area by China.

China subsequently accused the U.S. of militarizing the region, saying the U.S. patrols had escalated tensions and raised concerns about stability in the area.

Aucoin, whose Japan-based fleet covers a region from India to the international dateline in the Pacific Ocean, said the U.S. is not making such maneuvers to single out any country, and wants all nations that are reclaiming land to stop.

“I wish it wasn’t portrayed as U.S. versus China,” Aucoin told reporters in Sydney. “This shouldn’t seem provocative. What we’re trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions.”

Last week, U.S. and Taiwanese officials confirmed commercial satellite images showed anti-aircraft missiles had been placed on Woody Island in the Paracel chain. China has not denied the appearance of the missiles, but says it is entitled to defend its territory.

Aucoin said the missiles had provided a “destabilizing effect” across the region, and urged China to be transparent about its intentions. Asked whether the presence of the missile system would affect U.S. preparedness to fly over the area, Aucoin said no.

“We will fly, sail, operate wherever international law allows, including those areas,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week urged claimants to refrain from island-building and militarization in the South China Sea.

Aucoin also expressed concerns about North Korea’s recent nuclear test and rocket launch.

“They should immediately abandon their nuclear weapons,” Aucoin said. “We want them to do this in a comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible way, to stop their nuclear programs and abide by their commitments, their obligations, to stabilize that area of the world.”