US commits continued presence in South China Sea

Not only to maintain robust Philippine-US ties, United States Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim on Thursday said America will maintain its presence in the region through its freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) and port visits to Manila to ensure that the right to freedom of navigation is intact.

“Precisely because we are concerned about some of the developments in the South China Sea, it’s very important for us to be present,” he told reporters at a press conference in Manila.

Last February, aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson docked in Manila for a five-day port visit. It was followed by the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard that arrived in Manila in March 2018 and the massive aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which graced the capital in April.

Kim said the US ship visitations do not only demonstrate Washington’s commitment to US-Philippines alliance, but also serve as an assurance they are doing everything to protect freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, and freedom of commerce in the disputed area.

Not only of importance to the US, but to everybody including the Philippines, Kim committed that America “will continue to do whatever” they can to protect those rights.

Kim said the US is concerned over reports that China has installed a jamming device in one of the areas in the disputed waters.

“We are concerned. I think we are concerned anytime a claimant, including China, takes aggressive unilateral actions towards militarization, which is clear what they seem to have done. I saw the report and it seems to suggest that they’re moving towards militarization,” he said, adding the port visits are “directly relevant” to the current situation in the sea lane.

He said the US has consistently called on all claimants to refrain from unilateral aggressive actions that are inconsistent with international law and norms.

“We have called on countries to refrain from reclamation and militarization of their claimed lands. And we will continue to do so,” Kim said.

Several Southeast Asian states, including the Philippines and China, have overlapping claims in the vast South China Sea, believed to have large deposits of oil and natural gas.

At present, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are crafting the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea to control and manage possible crisis in the area.

America is not a claimant party, but US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy earlier expressed hope that the outcome document would lead to a “binding, meaningful result in accordance with international law.”

While he is finding it difficult to note specific elements the US wants to see in the COC, Kim believes the claimants have a direct interest in making sure anything they negotiate is actually a meaningful document.

“I think, to the extent, that is the goal, I would think the parties would want a binding document with substance and detail because if you have a vague, ambiguous document that’s not binding, I’m not sure what it would do in helping the claimants resolve this very complex situation,” he said. PNA