The U.S. military will continue patrols in the South China Sea, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said during a visit to a Chinese naval base Wednesday, just over a week after a ruling by an international arbitration panel essentially voided Beijing’s South China Sea maritime claims.
Richardson, on a five-day trip “to improve mutual understanding and encourage professional interaction between the two navies,” visited China’s North Sea Fleet headquarters in Qingdao to meet with fleet commander Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai.
During the meeting, Richardson highlighted the importance of lawful and safe operations in the South China Sea and elsewhere, reiterating the stance by Washington that U.S. forces will continue to sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows.
“The U.S. Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all. This will not change,” Richardson said, according to a navy news release.
Washington has angered Beijing by conducting so-called freedom of navigation exercises and other activities in the South China Sea and surrounding waters.
The waters have become a staging ground for the growing U.S.-China rivalry and have stoked concern of an accident or clash.
In May, the Pentagon said two Chinese fighter jets made an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. spy plane in the South China Sea, coming so close that they forced the U.S. pilot to descend in order to avoid a collision. That intercept came just a week after Beijing dispatched fighter jets and warships in response to Washington’s third freedom of navigation operation in the waters.
Richardson said that while he was supportive of continued exchanges, he would be “continuously reassessing … support conditioned on continued safe and professional interactions at sea.”
“In this area we must judge each other by our deeds and actions, not just by our words,” he added.
Richardson’s remarks came after a hotly anticipated ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12 said that there was no legal basis for Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim to nearly all the South China Sea.
Beijing rejected the verdict as “waste paper” and said it was considering establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) controlling flights over the waters.
On Monday, Richardson met with Chinese Navy commander Adm. Wu Shengli, who said that Beijing would press ahead with construction in the disputed Spratly chain, where it has been building airstrips and military facilities on man-made islands created by dredging sand and piling it on top of coral reefs.
The visit, which has been in work for months, was Richardson’s first to China and his first in-person meeting with Wu.