CANBERRA – The U.S. Air Force will continue to fly daily missions over the South China Sea despite a buildup of Chinese surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the contested region, with both nations’ militaries in discussions to avoid any “miscalculation,” a top U.S. general said Tuesday.
Gen. Lori Robinson, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, also urged other nations to exercise their freedom to fly and sail in international airspace and waters claimed by China in the South China Sea “or risk losing it throughout the region.”
“We’ve watched the increased military capability on those islands, whether it’s the fighters, whether it’s the missiles or the 10,000-foot runways. We will continue to do as we’ve always done, and that is fly and sail in international airspace in accordance to international rules and norms,” Robinson told reporters in Australia’s capital, Canberra, where she will address the Royal Australian Air Force’s biennial Air Power Conference next week.
Robinson declined to say how the United States would retaliate if a U.S. plane was shot down by the Chinese.
Several governments have conflicting claims in the South China Sea, a major conduit for world trade. The U.S. lays no claims to the waters, but says it has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and non-use of force and coercion to assert claims.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a hard line Tuesday on the country’s claims to virtually all of the South China Sea, saying Beijing won’t permit other nations to infringe on what it considers its sovereign rights in the strategically vital area.
Speaking to reporters at an annual news conference in Beijing, Wang said that another nation’s claim to freedom of navigation in the region doesn’t give it the right to do whatever it wants — an apparent reference to the U.S., which has sent naval ships past reefs where China has engaged in island-building.
Robinson conceded there was “a possibility of a miscalculation” leading to conflict in the increasingly militarized region.
But she said the United States and China had signed an agreement on air-to-air rules of behavior in international airspace in September and would continue discussions on the subject this year.
“That has allowed us to have continuous dialogue with the Chinese about how to conduct safe intercepts and intercepts in accordance with international rules and norms,” Robinson said.
She said Russian long-range aircraft were also increasingly active in the Pacific, flying around Japan and Guam.
As part of U.S. plans to increase its military presence in the Pacific, Robinson said discussions were underway with the Australian military to rotate U.S. bombers through the northern Australian air force bases at Darwin and Tindal.
“It gives us the opportunity to train our pilots to understand the theater and to strengthen our ties with our great allies, the Royal Australian Air Force,” Robinson said.
U.S. Marines already rotate through Darwin in a sign of an increasingly close military bilateral alliance that riles China, Australia’s most important trade partner.