US urges Southeast Asia to respond to China’s island fortification

Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 17 2019 11:43 AM

US urges Southeast Asia to respond to China’s island fortification 1
An aerial shot of Chinese-claimed reef Subi reef, from a Philippine airforce plane, as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana along with some journalists visit the Philippine-claimed Thitu island just opposite Subi reef in Spratlys on April 21, 2017. A group of Filipino fishermen have accused China's coast guard of shooting at their vessel in disputed South China waters, Philippne authorities said April 21. Ted Aljibe, AFP

MANILA — A senior United States Naval officer is encouraging Southeast Asian nations to determine its own response to China’s military expansion in the South China Sea.

Speaking during the Asia-Pacific Media Hub telephonic conference on Thursday, US Naval Operations chief Adm. John Richardson specifically called on Australian and Indonesian maritime forces to step up presence in the contested waterway.

“I think every nation’s going to have to assess their situation and take their own approach. But, at some point, navies are meant to get under way and be present to provide options to their leadership, and how they choose to do that is a matter of their national sovereign approach,” Richardson said from Tokyo, Japan where he was making a visit.

The Philippines has claims to the South China Sea and recently complained of Chinese incursions into its exclusive economic zone in the disputed sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have partial claims. 

Indonesia claims sovereignty over a section of what it calls the North Natuna sea, and last year opened a small military base on an island there.

Australia has backed all nations having access to the strategic sea lane, through which nearly one third of global shipping passes annually.

"Where we can see opportunities to work together, exercise together, be present together — those, I think, are things that we are constantly looking for. We’ve got a robust relationship with both of those navies, so we’ll just continue to do that,” Richardson said.
"But I think one size does not fit all. One size doesn’t fit every part of the Pacific. There’s a lot of variability there. Neither does one approach fit for every nation in the Pacific. Everybody’s got to determine their own approach," he added. 

Meanwhile, the four-star admiral hailed the Philippine Navy’s enthusiasm for modernization that has been said to be effective in intensifying maritime security.

“[Philippine Navy chied Vice Adm. Robert Empedrad] gave a presentation which highlighted the effectiveness of some of the patrols that have been going on, both in a multilateral context to the south, and then maybe looking to expand with a similar multilateral approach to the north. He was able to show with data that the undesired behavior in the maritime domain around the Philippines has gone dramatically down by virtue of these patrols, particularly the multinational patrols,” Richardson said.

For their part, Richardson assured that Washington will be consistent in its advocacy for rules-based order and challenge excessive maritime claims around the world that impinge on free and open seas.

“With respect to freedom of navigation operations, it’s important to understand that the United States Navy advocates doing these operations for freedom of navigation, open seas, consistent, abiding by UNCLOS. And we do these around the entire world. The operations, we do a dozen or so of these throughout the world including contesting the excessive maritime claims of even our allies and partners. And so this is part of the way that the United States continues to show a strong advocacy for a rules-based order that was brought together by UNCLOS, and it represents this balance and holistic agreement to govern the maritime commons,” he said.

UNCLOS refers to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. It is under the same convention that a Hague tribunal invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim over nearly all of South China Sea as it ramped up militarization and island-building activities in the waters.

Last week, two Washington warships — US guided-missile destroyers Preble and Chung Hoon — angered Beijing when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of some reefs being claimed by China in the Spratly Islands.

Richardson dismissed the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition."

"We’ll consistently be present," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of national interest. About a third of the world’s trade flows through the South China Sea. The United States is a maritime nation. We have great national interest in that body of water. So, we’ll consistently be there.”