KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Recent U.S. naval accidents in the Asia Pacific region will not interrupt “freedom of navigation” movements in the disputed South China Sea, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander said on Friday.
USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel near Singapore this week, the fourth major accident in the U.S. Pacific fleet this year, prompting a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in operations to focus on safety.
The guided-missile destroyer had sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea earlier this month, in the latest freedom of navigation operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the waters.
General Terrence J. O‘Shaughnessy, who is visiting Malaysia and other countries in the region this week, said the collision of the USS John S. McCain should not overshadow the defense capability the U.S. brings to the region.
“There is no setback to the operations following these incidents,” he said in a press briefing in Kuala Lumpur.
“We stand firm that we are going to sail and fly anywhere where international rules allow.”
China has been upset with the U.S. freedom of navigation operations near Chinese controlled islands, where China has been reclaiming land, building air bases and increasing its military presence.
Tensions mounted in the Asia Pacific this month as North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
O‘Shaughnessy said the United States took these threats “incredibly seriously”.
“This is a serious time in the relations with North Korea... We are ready to respond at a moment’s notice,” he said.
The United States flew two supersonic B-1B bombers over the Korean peninsula earlier this month in a show of force. The bombers took off from a U.S. air base in Guam and were joined by Japanese and South Korean fighter jets during the exercise.
The general said any more such responses would depend on what North Korea does.
Tensions between both countries eased slightly over the last few days and U.S. President Donald Trump expressed optimism about a possible improvement in relations.
But on Thursday, North Korea indicated it was working on another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) more powerful than any it has previously tested.
O‘Shaughnessy said North Korea had the ability to advance its capabilities.
“That is our concern... we are not going to accept a nuclear tipped ICBM pointed at the United States from North Korea, that’s been stated by our president and that is something we feel very strongly about,” he said.
Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Nick Macfie