BEIJING • US military forces will continue to operate in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, the United States Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson said yesterday during a visit to a Chinese naval base.
China has refused to recognise a ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague that invalidated its claims in the South China Sea and did not take part in the proceedings brought by the Philippines.
China has repeatedly blamed the US for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than US$5 trillion (S$6.8 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 US has conducted freedom-of-navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands, to Beijing's anger, while China has been bolstering its military presence there.
Meeting Vice-Admiral Yuan Yubai, commander of the Chinese North Sea Fleet, Admiral Richardson "underscored the importance of lawful and safe operations in the South China (Sea) 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."
Freedom-of-navigation patrols carried out by foreign navies in the South China Sea could end "in disaster", a senior Chinese admiral said over the weekend.
Adm Richardson said he was supportive of the deepening of relations between the US and Chinese navies, "but I will be continuously reassessing my support conditioned on continued safe and professional interactions at sea".