The United States will continue to carry out operations in the disputed South China Sea, including freedom of navigation patrols that have been repeatedly criticized by China, a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer said Monday. Gen. Robert Neller’s comments come after Pentagon released a report Friday detailing Beijing’s military buildup in the contested area.
“In the near term, we have to be able to meet our treaty obligations and exercise our sovereign rights under international law to transit the seas. And we’ll see where that takes us. Hopefully that creates stability and not instability,” Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said.
Neller also said that the U.S. would continue supporting international law and build trust with the countries in the Asia-Pacific region. He noted that “certain nations” were promoting their interests in the South China Sea by pushing boundaries but avoiding starting a conflict, the Navy Times reported.
“Certain nations kind of take advantage or do things that are short of conflict,” Neller reportedly said. “They are very subtle and very calculated, but they don’t support the stability of the region.”
The South China Sea has been long debated, with Beijing laying claims to most of the region. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims to the waters, through which over $5 trillion of maritime trade passes annually.
China has consistently defended its actions, saying it does not have any intentions of starting a conflict and that its operations will add to the safety of the region. The U.S. Navy also has been sending ships to the South China Sea under freedom of navigation patrols, angering Beijing. Last month, American aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis returned for patrol in the South China Sea.
On Friday, a Pentagon report said that China has been rapidly building military outposts on contested islands in the South China Sea. The report showed that Beijing has added over 3,200 acres in the last two years to the seven sites it occupies in the region.
Following the report, China expressed “strong dissatisfaction” over the findings.
“China follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. Moves such as deepening military reforms and the military buildup are aimed at maintaining sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing China's peaceful development,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Beijing also scrambled fighter jets last Tuesday in response to the U.S. Navy’s guided missile destroyer that sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, which is being controlled by China. The two countries have repeatedly blamed each other for militarizing the South China Sea.