The U.S. Pacific Fleet is viewed as the “partner of choice” by many Asian nations because of uncertainty over China’s intentions in the South China Sea, according to its commander.
“There’s broad uncertainty out there, just recently the economic has come to the fore but it’s the lack of transparency of intent, that’s what I hear from those in the region,” Admiral Scott Swift told reporters at a briefing held in Singapore on Thursday.
China’s large-scale land reclamation in the South China Sea has escalated tensions with some Southeast Asian nations that also claim parts of the waters. Asia’s biggest economy unexpectedly devalued its currency by the most in two decades and cut interest rates this month as policy makers struggle to stabilize a plunging stock market and shore up growth.
“Everyone wants a stable, prosperous China, clearly that’s what’s best for the region and that’s what’s best for the world,” said Swift. “But they want one that respects and honors the international norms, standards, rules and laws that have resulted in the stability that we’ve enjoyed over the last 70 years.”
Tensions in the area have risen this year, with China warning planes and ships away from reefs where it is reclaiming land. The USS Fort Worth had an encounter with a Chinese ship while patrolling the contested waters, and a U.S. surveillance plane was repeatedly warned by radio to divert from its path near the reefs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has asked the Pentagon to consider expanding patrols in disputed areas of the sea. Such actions, known as freedom of navigation challenges, could elicit protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its assertions.
“These activities are ongoing on a regular basis, the fact that we don’t publicize them on a regular basis I think is reflective of the uncertainty and instability that is present in the region,” said Swift. “But I think that those who should know do know that the U.S. presence as well as the presence of other navies is there on a regular basis.”
The U.S. would fly or sail wherever international law allows, Carter said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May. The U.S. and China last year agreed on codes to help each other communicate when they meet unexpectedly.
“As we encounter each other at sea, the discussions are broadly collegial in nature,” said Swift. “Where we encounter each other in those areas that are sensitive to China, that China has laid claim to, those dialogs tend to be a little tenser.”