SYDNEY • 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, in comments that threaten to escalate already heightened tensions over words by Mr Donald Trump.
Admiral Harry Harris warned that Washington would not accept Chinese control of the waterway, despite Beijing's rapid development of artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
The US has called on China to respect the findings of the arbitration tribunal at The Hague earlier this year which invalidated its vast territorial claims in the sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia are also claimants.
But Beijing continues to act in an "aggressive" manner, to which the US stands ready to respond, Adm Harris said yesterday in a speech at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.
"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 Trump's suggestion that Washington could jettison its decades-old "one China" policy, as well as his decision to accept a telephone call from Taiwan's President on Dec 2.
On Adm Harris's remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the situation in the South China Sea was currently stable, thanks to the hard work of China and others in the region.
"We hope the United States can abide by its promises on not taking sides in the sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea," he told a daily news briefing.
The US estimates that Beijing 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 took place in October. The patrols have angered Beijing, with a senior Chinese official in July warning that the practice may end in "disaster".
But Adm Harris signalled that the operations will continue.
"The US fought its first war following our independence to ensure freedom of navigation, and we did that when we were weak and small," he said.
The admiral added that Washington would not make Australia choose between the US, its traditional ally, and China, a rising world power.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said last month that Canberra and Jakarta were considering joint patrols in the disputed region.
The Australian navy has already conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea with India and the US.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE