A top U.S. diplomat denied U.S. neutrality in the South China Sea, the Diplomat magazine reported July 22. Though the U.S. has attempted to maintain a safe distance from debates concerning China's disputed islands in the South China Sea, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the U.S. will take a strong stance if China is found to have acted illegally.

The ongoing dispute in the South China Sea concerns the Spratly Islands. China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, though the the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also laid claim to the same territory. China revved up efforts in dredging and transporting sand to construct the artificial islands over the course of the past few months. At the beginning of July 2015, China completed construction on an airstrip large enough to accommodate military aircraft.

Japan, the Philippines, and other nations in the region have openly condemned China's actions in the South China Sea and, especially, the recent construction of this potential military base.

“We are not neutral when it comes to adhering to international law. We will come down forcefully when it comes to following the rules,” Russel said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. Russel added that he will continue to advocate for a peaceful resolution to this debate, encouraging cooperation on both sides. 

The admission by Russel comes only one day after a U.S. spy plane was found flying over the Spratly Islands. China was outraged by this perceived surveillance and a member of the Chinese defense ministry said: "For a long time, U.S. military ships and aircraft have carried out frequent, widespread and up-close surveillance of China, seriously harming bilateral mutual trust and China's security interests, which could easily cause an accident at sea or in the air."