US navy chief says US forces will keep operating in the South China Sea

US Navy fighters fly in formation over the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis as it sails in the Philippine Sea, on June 18, 2016.
US Navy fighters fly in formation over the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis as it sails in the Philippine Sea, on June 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP/US NAVY

BEIJING (Reuters) - United States military forces will continue to operate in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson said on Wednesday (July 20) during a visit to a Chinese naval base.

Meeting commander of the Chinese North Sea Fleet Yuan Yubai, Admiral Richardson "underscored the importance of lawful and safe operations in the South China and elsewhere professional navies operate", the US Navy said.

US forces would keep sailing, flying and operating wherever international law allows, Adm Richardson added. "The US 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."

Adm Richardson said he was supporting of the deepening of relations between the two navies. "But I will be continuously reassessing my 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.

Speaking in Sydney on Wednesday, US Vice-President Joe Biden assured key ally Australia there would be no retreat from Washington's pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, regardless of who wins November's presidential election.

China has refused to recognise a ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague that invalidated its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea and did not take part in the proceedings brought by the Philippines.

China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than US$5 trillion of trade moves annually.

China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims, of which China's is the largest.

The United States has conducted freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands, to Beijing's anger, while China has been bolstering its military presence there.

The United States has complained that Chinese aircraft and ships have performed "unsafe" manoeuvres while shadowing US ships and planes, particularly in the South China Sea.