SYDNEY – The commander of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said Monday that he is wary of the situation in the South China Sea being painted as a battle between the United States and China, but added the presence of a Chinese missile system on a disputed island will not stop the U.S. military from flying over the region.
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin's comments come a week after it was revealed that Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the fiercely contested region. The U.S. said the presence of missiles provided increasing evidence of militarization of the area by China.
China subsequently accused the U.S. of militarizing the region, saying patrols by U.S. Navy vessels and military aircraft had escalated tensions and raised concerns about stability in the area.
Last month, a U.S. warship deliberately sailed near one of the Beijing-controlled islands in the Paracel chain in a so-called freedom of navigation exercise. China, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the Paracels.
Aucoin, whose Japan-based fleet covers a region from India to the international dateline in the Pacific Ocean, said the U.S. is not making such maneuvers to single out any country, and wants all nations that are reclaiming land to stop.
"I wish it wasn't portrayed as U.S. versus China," Aucoin told reporters in Sydney, one of his stops on a visit to Australia to meet with defense officials. "This shouldn't seem provocative. What we're trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions."
Last week, U.S. and Taiwanese officials confirmed commercial satellite images showed anti-aircraft missiles had been placed on Woody Island in the Paracel chain. China has not denied the appearance of the missiles, but says it is entitled to defend its territory.
Aucoin said the missiles had provided a "destabilizing effect" across the region, and urged China to be transparent about its intentions. Asked whether the presence of the missile system would affect U.S. preparedness to fly over the area, Aucoin said no.
"We will fly, sail, operate wherever international law allows, including those areas," he said.
Aucoin also expressed concerns about North Korea's recent nuclear test and rocket launch.
"They should immediately abandon their nuclear weapons," Aucoin said. "We want them to do this in a comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible way, to stop their nuclear programs and abide by their commitments, their obligations, to stabilize that area of the world."