South China Sea ruling a chance to 'renew efforts to address disputes peacefully': US Pacific Commander

 US Navy Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris (left) speaks to an officer outside USS Spruance, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.
US Navy Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris (left) speaks to an officer outside USS Spruance, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - The United States believes claimants in the South China Sea should use the recent arbitration tribunal decision as a "new opportunity to renew efforts to address maritime disputes peacefully", US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris said on Wednesday (July 27).

The tribunal's decision issued on July 12 was over a complaint filed by Manila in 2013. It struck down China's claims to more than two-thirds of the South China Sea. China said it would not accept the ruling and that its 'territorial sovereignty and marine rights' in the seas would not be affected.

China's territorial claims to the waterway overlap with four Asean states - Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei - as well as Taiwan.

Adm Harris told the third annual Japan-US Military Statesmen Forum in Tokyo: "India's response to similar arbitration is an example of a great power acting responsibly."

He was referring to India accepting a tribunal's decision in 2014 over a sea boundary dispute with neighbouring Bangladesh, which had resulted in a "more peaceful and prosperous region".

Japan is embroiled in a separate territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea over a crop of islets known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China, to which Adm Harris said that the "US policy is clear on the islands".

He spoke for 20 minutes at the forum held at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and organised by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation think tank.

The speech reinforced the long-standing Japan-US alliance. He said: "In a world crying out for leadership at the global level, the need for our alliance has never been stronger."

He also called for stronger bonds with other like-minded partners such as India and Australia to combat evolving strategic threats and meet new global challenges.

He acknowledged that China has been a "responsible actor" on several fronts including disaster relief efforts and its participation this year in the Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) Exercise, the world's biggest naval warfare exercise taking place off California and Hawaii.

But he also noted Defence Secretary Ashton Carter as having said that China is one of five strategic challenges that drive US defence planning and budgeting.

The other four are North Korea, Russia, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group and Iran.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to these challenges," he said. "And we cannot give any nation or insidious non-state actor a pass if they purposefully erode the current rules-based order."

Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani separately said he hopes to further cement the US-Japan relationship in areas such as humanitarian assistance and cyber security.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's forum had also its light-hearted moments in a sign of the camaraderie forged between Japan and the US.

Adm Harris and Mr Nakatani spoke about the Pokemon Go mobile game that has swept the world, to laughs from the 100-strong audience of current and retired US and Japanese top brass.

Mr Nakatani said that when Adm Harris had suggested the Japanese Defence Ministry "might be a good hotspot for Pokemon Go", he had responded: "We have very strict and watertight security so Pokemon cannot enter our ministry... But I have to confess they actually do exist."

He added: "So we share intel on missiles and now on Pokemon locations as well."