MANILA (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. military Pacific Command said Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea was causing concern in the region, and said the United States would work to ensure security and protect important trade routes.
The United States military had been present in the region for 150 years and would remain there for many more, Admiral Robert Willard told reporters on Wednesday after meeting the head of the Philippine military, Lieutenant-General Ricardo David.
“We discussed the assertiveness that we’re experiencing by the Chinese in the South China Sea and the concerns that that has generated within the region,” he said, saying the United States did not take sides in the territorial disputes in the region and adhered to international conventions.
“Our purpose there is to maintain security, when you consider the sealines of communication that criss-cross this very strategic and important region of the ocean, they carry the majority of commerce for this part of the world,” he said, saying the U.S. Navy would work with “our partners in the region.”
“The overall security, the maritime security and security of the airspace, in these international waters is vitally important.”
The United States and South Korea last month held a joint naval drill in the Sea of Japan off the Korean peninsula, which brought condemnation from China, which answered with its own heavily publicized military exercises.
Captain Rudy Lupton, commander of the USS Blue Ridge, the command and control ship of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet based in Japan, said earlier this month China should act “responsibly” in the South China Sea.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Taiwan all stake claims over territory in the South China Sea, which is rich in energy and a major shipping route. All except Brunei have a military presence in the area, and the boundary claims have sparked deadly naval clashes.
Southeast Asian states have become worried by China’s increasingly aggressive stance on the complex set of disputes. In late July, Chinese naval forces carried out drills in the disputed southern waters amid tension with Washington over security on the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upset China when she raised the issue of territorial claims at the ASEAN regional forum in July, and supported a multilateral approach to resolving them.
Beijing wants to handle the disputes on a one-on-one basis.
“What the U.S. opposes is any resort of force or forms of coercion to stake this claims on the part of any single nation at the expense of the others,” Willard said.
Asked about recent build-ups of military and naval capabilities by countries with claims on the South China Sea, both Willard and David said it was understandable self-interest to protect their interests, and it could help ensure peace.
“So this is about preventing conflict, not allowing any of the circumstances in the region to lead up to a shooting war,” Willard said.
Writing by John Mair; Editing by Nick Macfie