The commander of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet on Monday urged Australia to challenge China’s claims on the South China Sea by launching “freedom of navigation” naval operations within 12 miles of the disputed islands. U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin's comments came just days after it was revealed that Beijing deployed surface-to-air missiles on one of the contested islands.
Aucoin, who is in Australia for high-level talks with defense leaders over the growing concerns about China’s military expansion in the South China Sea, said that it would be "valuable" and in the region's "best interests" if Australia and other countries sent warships. Since last October, U.S. warships have sailed close to China's claimed islands as part of so-called "freedom of navigation" operations that Beijing has termed provocative.
"This shouldn't seem provocative. What we're trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions," Aucoin said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). "It's up to those countries, but I think it's in our best interests to make sure that those sea lines remain open, I'll leave it at that.
Aucoin reportedly said that the U.S. was not making maneuvers in the South China Sea to single out any country.
"I wish it wasn't portrayed as U.S. vs. China," Aucoin reportedly said, adding that the presence of a Chinese missile system on a disputed island will not stop the U.S. military from flying over the region.
Last week, U.S. and Taiwanese officials confirmed anti-aircraft missiles had been placed on Woody Island, which is part of the Paracels chain, under Chinese control for more than 40 year but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. China said that the deployment of missiles was “lawful for China to deploy defense facilities within its territory, and the facilities have existed for years.”