US Vice-President Mike Pence says the South China Sea does not belong to any one nation and the United States will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows, comments sure to rile China which claims the strategic sea route.
The United States has conducted a series of “freedom of navigation” exercises, along with allies including Australia, in the contested South China Sea, angering Beijing, which said the moves threatened its sovereignty.
“The South China Sea doesn’t belong to any one nation, and you can be sure: The United States will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” Mr Pence said.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, all have claims in the South China Sea, through which some $4.12 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year.
Mr Pence, in Singapore for an Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, told leaders there was no place for “empire and aggression” in the Indo-Pacific region, a comment that could be interpreted as a reference to China’s rise.
His latest comments follow a major speech in October in which he flagged a tougher approach by Washington toward Beijing, accusing China of “malign” efforts to undermine US President Donald Trump and reckless military actions in the South China Sea.
The time to choose ‘one or the other’ will come, say analysts
While analysts say that countries across Asia are waiting for the United States to put substance behind its Indo-Pacific rhetoric, Mr Trump’s absence from the summits only served to heighten concerns among South-East Asian states that Washington no longer has their back.
Singapore President Lee Hsien Loong said it was “very desirable” for ASEAN not to have to take sides with world powers, but there may come a time when it would “have to choose one or the other”.
Some South-East Asian nations may be quietly impressed by the United States’ robust approach to Beijing on trade, intellectual property issues and the South China Sea, but others have made it clear they already see China’s rise as inevitable.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, when asked about US Navy drills, noted that China already occupies contested South China Sea islands and added: “Why do you have to create frictions … that will prompt a response from China?”
Mr Pence and a number of regional leaders are set to arrive in Cairns on Friday night ahead of the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) Summit, held in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.