PACOM commander says US tests in South China Sea to continue
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The U.S. will continue to test the waters surrounding China's manmade islands in the South China Sea, the Pacific Command chief said Tuesday, even as defense officials spend the week in Asia stressing the importance of U.S.-China relations.
The transit of U.S. destroyer USS Lassen last week within the 12-mile radius that China claims as its territorial waters around disputed islands quickly escalated tensions in the region. China warned against further provocative moves, and a Chinese admiral warned that further U.S. transits could spark war.
In a speech to students at Peking University, PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris said the U.S. will continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea while emphasizing that the ships will avoid military confrontation.
“We’ve been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no one should be surprised by them,” Harris said. “The South China Sea is not - and will not - be an exception.”
But Harris was also quick to stress that military-to-military relations between the two nations continue. As he spoke, Chinese navy ships were visiting Mayport, Fla., and the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark was visiting San Diego.
“Later this month, not only will USS Stethem visit Shanghai, so too will Adm. Scott Swift, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander,” Harris said.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter also said Monday that the U.S. will continue to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but stressed China’s importance to the U.S., and to the region, in trying to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Harris emphasized that while the two nations may disagree on territorial claims, “We must not allow the areas where China and the U.S. disagree to impact our ability to make progress on the areas where we do agree.”