TOKYO • US naval vessels sailing through international waters in the South China Sea, including areas claimed by China, cannot be considered provocative, the US Navy's most senior uniformed officer said, while a Chinese newspaper called for a firm response to any "unscrupulous" US behaviour.
Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson made the remarks yesterday at a press roundtable in Tokyo at the start of a trip around Asia."It should not come as a surprise to anybody that we will exercise freedom of navigation wherever international law allows," he said. "I don't see how this can be interpreted as provocative."
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Beijing has warned it will not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation, while the US says international law prohibits claiming territory around artificial islands built on previously submerged reefs.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying repeated that China has consistently respected and safeguarded freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. "But we resolutely oppose any country doing harm to another country's sovereignty and security in the name of freedom of navigation and overflight," she told reporters.
The Global Times tabloid said yesterday in an editorial these potential US patrols were not really about freedom of navigation, but a show of strength intended to emphasise US global hegemony. "From this perspective, China absolutely must not permit the US side's warships and planes to behave unscrupulously near islands and reefs reclaimed by China and in skies overhead, and challenge China's bottom line," said the paper, which is published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily.
"China's naval and air capacities must prepare, watch for US military provocations and respond accordingly with countermeasures."
Coming within 12 nautical miles of the islands could be a "breach of China's bottom line", the paper said, warning that "if the US encroaches on China's core interests, the Chinese military will stand up and use force to stop it".
Some analysts in Washington believe the US has already decided to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations inside the 12-nautical-mile limits that China claims around islands built on reefs in the Spratly archipelago. US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said on Tuesday the US military would sail or fly wherever international law allowed.
Admiral Richardson is in Japan at the start of a 12-day trip around Asia and Europe. Starting in Japan, he said, showed the importance of the alliance between both sides.