The Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift says that it is up to the policymakers in Washington whether to give orders to the country’s sailors to patrol within 12 nautical miles of the newly constructed islands claimed by China in the controversial South China Sea.
While speaking during an interview on Thursday, the Commander of the Pacific Fleet spoke about tension mounting due to Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea but admitted that although US will sail near the disputed islands to challenge China’s claims, the final decision rests on the country’s policymakers.
Swift told the Associated Press that his Pacific Fleet has the capabilities to enter the controversial waters but went on to claim that such an exercise will be conducted in a bid to reinforce international laws and the law of sea and that these patrols will not be aimed at a specific country.
“We’re ready,” Swift said at his Pearl Harbor office. “We have the resources to support whatever those policy decisions are and whatever policymakers may ask us to do to demonstrate the U.S. resolve with respect to the operations that we conduct in the South China Sea.”
Pacific Fleet to flex its muscles soon?
Currently, China, along with five other states, stake a claim to part or all of the South China Sea which is a busy passageway for commercial and military vessels. And although Washington does not have a policy of taking sides when it comes to territorial disputes, it claims that it’s in its natural interests to ensure freedom of navigation and aims at finding a peaceful resolution of such conflicts.
China has really speeded things up in terms of constructing the new islands atop reefs and atolls in the South China Sea since 2013 and now, has added buildings and airstrips in a bid to boost its sovereignty claims in the disputed territory.
However, Swift says that under international law, building an island that can be seen only during low tide does not warrant China’s territorial claims.
During a news conference in Boston last week, the US Defense Secretary, Ash Carter stated that US will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows it to and that includes its adventures in and around the South China Sea.
According to a report published by US newspaper Navy Times, the country’s Navy will soon receive an approval for a mission to sail in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands.
Pacific Fleet to continue with the status quo
The Pacific Fleet commander also stated that nothing has changed for his team despite China’s construction of the islands. Swift says that the fleet has always operated inside the area in the past and it will continue to do so going forward.
“We continue to operate in that space, just as if they hadn’t been built,” he said.
However, it is clear that US is weighing its options very carefully and does not want things to escalate to a point of no return. The last time the US patrolled within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands was back in 2012.
In past, Japan and the Philippines have been given a lot of support by the United States against Chinese expansionist approach towards the South and East China Seas. China has been very much irked by Washington’s approach and US does not want to handle the current situation without analyzing it in great detail.
Moreover, US is also worried about the mechanism all claimants of South China Sea have adopted to take care of the situation. The Code of Conduct is very much flawed which is largely down to the inability of all concerned parties’ to reach a resolution that caters for the concern of every state involved in the raging issue.
A failed Code of Conduct raises the importance of the Pacific Fleet
The COC needs to have a multi-chaptered look about it for functionality. It needs to be categorized into several chapters and tailored according to every participant’s circumstances. Moreover, many terms used in the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea are irrelevant to some ASEAN member states, which means that the COC is still very general in its outlook.
All these concerns have forced the US government to activating its Pacific Fleet into reentering the controversial territory which could prove to be a bold yet decisive initiative aimed at calming things down in a territory that is flirting dangerously close to a conflict that could eventually turn into an all-out war.