KUALA LUMPUR • The US is seeking to expand the use of protocols agreed with China to avoid flare-ups during unexpected naval encounters to include Chinese coast guard vessels, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet said.
The US and China have agreed to a naval code of conduct that is "working quite well", Admiral Scott Swift said on a conference call from Kuala Lumpur.
"The US is interested in expanding this mechanism to the Chinese coast guard as well."
Including China's so-called white-hulled fleet would be recognition of the role the coast guard plays in executing China's foreign policy. It is the world's largest deepwater coast guard, according to Mr Ryan Martinson, a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College.
China has been using its coast guard to help enforce its claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea. According to a Pentagon report released this month, China has reclaimed more than 1,170ha of land to expand seven of its eight outposts in the waters as of June.
South-east Asian foreign ministers also warned this month that competing territorial claims in the South China Sea risk upsetting regional stability.
"Foreign observers generally agree that by deploying unarmed coast guard ships - white hulls - to pursue its interests, China is able to leverage its growing power while avoiding international opprobrium detrimental to other foreign policy goals," Mr Martinson wrote in the April edition of the US Naval Institute's Proceedings publication.
"Many of the encounters at sea that my naval ships have are as frequent with the Chinese coast guard - and other coast guards - as with the Chinese navy ships," said Adm Swift, who took over command of the fleet from Admiral Harry Harris in May.
Adm Harris was promoted to commander of the US Pacific Command.
Adm Swift is making an introductory trip to the Asia-Pacific region, where he has visited Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines and South Korea. He will visit Singapore this week.
Earlier this year, Adm Harris came to prominence after describing China's South China Sea island-reclamation programme as "a great wall of sand".
China's land grab dwarfs those of other claimants, according to the Pentagon. Vietnam has claimed a total of 32ha; Malaysia, 28ha; the Philippines, 5ha; and Taiwan, 3ha.
"What is most troubling from the Chinese perspective is the scope and scale of the reclamation," Adm Swift said.
Five other territories have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea, which China has said can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations.
Adm Swift said claimants should attempt a multilateral approach to dispute resolution "and not allow the use of coercion or force as a lever to resolve differences for the benefit of one party".