SYDNEY • Some countries appear to view freedom of the seas as "up for grabs" in the South China Sea, imposing superfluous warnings and restrictions that threaten stability, a US Navy commander said in comments apparently aimed at China.
Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said yesterday in a strongly worded address in Australia that the United States remained "as committed as ever" to protect freedom of navigation through the region.
"It's my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law," Adm Swift told a maritime conference in Sydney.
"Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters."
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
The US has called for a halt to China's artificial island building in the area. China says it has irrefutable sovereignty over the sea and no hostile intent. It has also accused the US of militarising the South China Sea by staging patrols and joint military drills.
Both the US and China have blamed each other for dangerous moves during several recent incidents involving their aircraft and ships.
"Put simply, we will continue to exercise freedom of the seas for all nations, because we know from painful past experience, to shirk this responsibility and obligation puts much more at risk than any one nation's maritime interests," Adm Swift said.
China last month said it was "extremely concerned" about a suggestion by a top US commander that US ships and aircraft should challenge China's claims in the South China Sea by patrolling close to artificial islands it has built.
Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, had told a Senate hearing last month that China's move to build three airfields on small islands in the South China Sea, and their further militarisation, was of "great concern, militarily".
Pressed by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on whether US forces should challenge China by sailing within 12 nautical miles of the islands, Adm Harris said: "I believe we should exercise, be allowed to exercise, freedom of navigation and flight - maritime and flight - in the South China Sea against those islands that are not islands."
He added: "Conducting that kind of... freedom-of-navigation operation is one of the operations we're considering."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE