US ready to confront Beijing on South China Sea: Admiral

US Pacific Command head Harry Harris leaving after the Philippine-US Mutual Defence Board meeting in Manila on Nov 22, 2016.
US Pacific Command head Harry Harris leaving after the Philippine-US Mutual Defence Board meeting in Manila on Nov 22, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The United States is ready to confront China should it continue its overreaching maritime claims in the South China Sea, the head of the US Pacific fleet said on Wednesday (Dec 14), comments that threaten to escalate tensions between the two global rivals.

China claims most of the resource-rich South China Sea through which about US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

The US has called on China to respect the findings of arbitration court in The Hague earlier this year which invalidated its vast territorial claims in the strategic waterway.

But Beijing continues to act in an "aggressive" manner, to which Washington stands ready to respond, Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, said in a speech in Sydney.

"We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea," he said. "We will cooperate when we can but we will be ready to confront when we must."

The comments threaten to stoke tensions between the US and China, already heightened by President-elect Donald Trump's decision to accept a telephone call from Taiwan's President on Dec 2 that prompted a diplomatic protest from Beijing.

The US estimates China has added more than 1,300ha of land on seven features in the South China Sea over the past three years, building runways, ports, aircraft hangars and communications equipment.

In response, the US has conducted a series of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, the latest of which came in October.

The patrols have angered Beijing, with a senior Chinese official in July warning the practice may end in "disaster".

Admiral Harris said it was a decision for the Australian government whether the US ally should undertake its own freedom-of-navigation operations, but added that the US would continue with the practice.

"The US fought its first war following our independence to ensure freedom of navigation," said Admiral Harris. "This is an enduring principle and one of the reasons our forces stand ready to fight tonight."