MANILA • The United States is stepping up its aid to South-east Asian maritime law enforcement agencies as China moves to cement its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
The US will provide more than US$100 million (S$141 million) to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia as part of a maritime law enforcement initiative unveiled in 2013, said Mr William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, in a telephone briefing on Thursday.
The money, which has been increased from US$25 million at the programme's inception, will be used to provide the region's coast guards and other maritime agencies with equipment and vessels to help them improve communications and surveillance of their domains.
NOTHING TO HIDE
The initiative is completely transparent. We are doing nothing behind closed doors.
MR WILLIAM BROWNFIELD, Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
The assistance comes as China uses its own coast guard to help enforce its claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, butting up against claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China's white-hulled fleet is the world's largest deep-water coast guard, according to Mr Ryan Martinson, a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College.
The Chinese government deploys its coast guard vessels to pursue its military objectives, thus avoiding the international opprobrium that deployment of its navy would bring, Mr Martinson said.
China has reclaimed more than 1,100ha of land to expand seven of its eight outposts in the waters as of June this year, according to a Pentagon report.
The US is seeking to expand the use of protocols agreed with China, designed to prevent flare-ups during unexpected naval encounters, to include Chinese coast guard vessels, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said in August.
Mr Brownfield, who recently visited Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, did not present the initiative as a challenge to China's coast guard.
"The initiative is completely transparent. We are doing nothing behind closed doors," he said. "I do acknowledge, and logic and common sense will tell you, that a nation that is better able to enforce its maritime laws will be better able to address other issues as well. But that is not the purpose of this initiative."
Meanwhile, in Beijing yesterday, a foreign ministry spokesman said China was against parties entering territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation.
The spokesman was responding to reports that the US was considering sailing warships close to China's artificial islands in the South China Sea to signal that it does not recognise Chinese territorial claims over the area.
The Navy Times has quoted US officials as saying the action could take place "within days", but awaited final approval from the Obama administration.