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US to oppose force in sea claims

The United States will oppose moves by any country to seize control of disputed areas in the South China Sea by force, the top American military commander in the Pacific said Wednesday, adding that rival claimants might need to seek compromises to resolve their feud over potentially oil-rich territories. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command did not mention any country by name, but China’s increasingly aggressive claims to disputed islands have triggered worries about confrontations with others including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. “We will oppose the change of status quo by force by anyone,” Locklear told reporters during a visit to Malaysia. “We need to retain the status quo until we get to a code of conduct or a solution by party nations that is peacefully accepted.” After his Malaysian visit, Locklear is scheduled to visit the Philippines today (Thursday) as announced by the US Embassy in Manila. Locklear, who will stay in the country for two days (June 6-7), will discuss with Philippine defense officials “a range of common security challenges,” a US Embassy statement said. Locklear has visited the country several times in the past since China had aggressively revived its claims over the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are also being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Among the areas being claimed by China are the seven islets and three reefs comprising the Kalayaan Island Group in Spratlys, which are located within the 200 nautical mile, of the country’s exclusive economic zone. Southeast Asian governments, including the Philippines, want a legally binding code of conduct with China to deter hostile actions and prevent fighting. But Beijing has not clearly said when it would discuss the proposal. Locklear said the U.S. would not take sides but added that a code of conduct that enables maritime officers “to understand the boundaries of what they can do (would be) in the best interest for a peaceful solution.” He nevertheless said tensions were unlikely to escalate badly because the countries “understand this could be a long process, they understand restraint.” China has sought to resolve disputes through bilateral negotiations, but some of the countries want multilateral talks, feeling Beijing’s size is too much of an advantage in direct talks. Meanwhile, a Chinese warship which was previously monitored positioned near the Ayungin Reef had apparently left the area after the Navy reported that it had “disappeared” from their sight. “As per our monitoring, the Chinese warship cannot be seen within Ayungin Reef,” said a military source, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to issue any official statement. The Naval Western Command in Palawan, however, reported  that two Chinese surveillance ships have remained in the area. “The two Chinese surveillance ships remained in Ayungin Reef in the West Philippine Sea,” said Western Command spokesperson Lt. Cheryl Tindog, who added that Philippine Navy vessels were earlier deployed to the 32.7 hectare KIG,  the largest Philippine territory in the Spratlys to prevent potential invasion. The deployment of navy ships came weeks after Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-Onon and 100 companions, on board a motor launch, were chased by a suspected Chinese speed craft near Ayungin Reef. Ayungin Reef, also known as Second Thomas Reef, was occupied by the Philippines in 1973.  It lies near the Mischief Reef or Panganiban Reef, 150 miles off Palawan, 620 miles Southeast of China and only 26 miles off Kalayaan Island. With Francisco Tuyay and AP
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