SINGAPORE - US Vice President Mike Pence said on Friday the South China Sea does not belong to any one nation and the United States will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows, comments sure to rile China which claims the strategic sea route.
The United States has conducted a series of "freedom of navigation" exercises in the contested South China Sea, angering Beijing, which says the moves threaten its sovereignty.
"The South China Sea doesn’t belong to any one nation, and you can be sure: The United States will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows and our national interests demand," Pence said.
Pence's statement on the disputed territory comes a day after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said the US is creating "friction" in an area that is "already in possession" of China.
"China is already in possession. It’s now in their hands. So why do you have to create frictions… military activity that will prompt a response from China?" Duterte told reporters on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Singapore.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, all have claims in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year.
Pence on Thursday told leaders of Southeast Asian nations on there was no place for "empire and aggression" in the Indo-Pacific region, a comment that could be interpreted as a reference to China's rise.
Pence's latest comments follow a major speech in October in which he flagged a tougher approach by Washington towards Beijing, accusing China of "malign" efforts to undermine U.S. President Donald Trump and reckless military actions in the South China Sea.