A U.S. Navy commander says if the United States lost access to international waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, it would have far-reaching implications beyond military.

U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott H. Swift told a conference on Indo-Pacific maritime security on Wednesday that sailing warships in freedom of navigation operations through contested areas where multiple countries have competing territorial claims was "not a naval issue."

Swift says loss of access would have "implications are far beyond the scope of anything that's military in nature," including the global economy and international law.

But he says the United States has no expectation that such a loss of access would ever occur.

The U.S. Navy has angered China by sending warships close to islands built by Beijing.