‘Uphold freedom of navigation’

National 2 minutes, 20 seconds

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

THE United States is standing by its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, calling on other navies to join its patrols in upholding a rules-based order as tensions mount over contested waters in the region.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander in chief of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), recently justified the operations as key in ensuring countries have continued access to shared domains.

“I support the right of any country to patrol in the South China Sea, because it’s (in) international waters... and I welcome all of your navies’ ability to patrol there,” he said in a briefing with ASEAN journalists at Camp HM Smith, Hawaii.

Given the region’s strategic significance with vital shipping lanes and major undersea cables, he emphasised it is important to defend freedom of navigation.

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the South China Sea which is believed to be rich in natural resources, but China asserts sovereignty over virtually all of the islands.

The commander also called on the 10-nation bloc to approach the dispute collectively, particularly in drawing up a “meaningful” code of conduct (COC) to diffuse tension in the South China Sea.

“This is why freedom of navigation is so important, because of all the shipping and undersea cables that go through the region, most especially in the South China Sea. All this can be enhanced with a COC and helping ensure that access,” he said.

Meanwhile, a senior fellow at the East-West Centre viewed the patrols and overflight in the South China Sea as a demonstration of reinforcing a rules-based order in the region.

“The US military’s freedom of navigation operation is not about writing new rules, but rather reinforcing what we understand to be a rules-based order... The US point of view (is) that the system of rules has value for lots of countries,” said Dr Denny Roy.

While not all countries unanimously agree to the order, he believed it enables “everyone to speak up more loudly in support of those rules when they come under challenge”.

US President Barack Obama last month said they will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows in a clear signal to uphold freedom of navigation in the resource-rich South China Sea amid reports of Beijing deploying missiles to one of the disputed islands.

The president said the US will support the right of all countries to do the same by helping allies and partners to strengthen their maritime capabilities.

“Freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded. I reiterated that the US will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” he said in a press conference at the Special US-ASEAN Leaders Summit in Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage.

The Brunei Times