US ups South China Sea patrols ‘to send clear signal’ to China

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper reviews an honour guard in Manila. (AP pic)

MANILA: The US is conducting more patrols in the South China Sea to send a signal to China that it intends to maintain freedom in the area that’s crucial for global trade, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.

Esper said at a media briefing in Manila the US “rejects attempts by any nation to use coercion or intimidation to advance international interests at the expense of others.”

He also urged nations with South China Sea claims to take a public position and assert sovereign rights to get China “on the right path.”

“The clear signal we’re trying to send is not that we’re opposing China per se, but we all stand for international law, and that we think China should abide by them as well,” Esper said.

Esper said the US has conducted “more freedom of navigation operations in the past year or so than we did have in the past 20-plus years.”

Why the South China Sea fuels US-China tensions

While Esper didn’t elaborate, the US has confirmed at least five so-called “freedom of navigation” operations to challenge excessive maritime claims in the Spratly and Paracel island chains, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

That’s the same number that was publicly reported in 2018.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit back at a separate briefing in Beijing, saying the US has long sought to “fan the flames” and create “chaos in the South China Sea”.

Geng added that China was working with regional countries to ensure stability and urged the US to stop acting as a “disruptor”.

In Manila, Esper also said the US remains committed to the 68-year-old defense treaty that binds it to come to the Philippines’ aid in case of an armed attack on its territory.

The treaty applies to the South China Sea, he added.

The Philippines is discussing with the US how the defense treaty can be made clearer, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. He added that the two nations’ relationship had “suffered setbacks” but remained enduring.

Esper also pledged to continue supporting Philippine military upgrades and counter-terrorism efforts and said it was good to clarify the defense treaty to respond to changing times.