Aboard USS Ronald Reagan, South China Sea—The United States will not waver in its resolve to exercise freedom of navigation and overfly whenever there are “excessive” claims made on the South China Sea, a top American military official said Sunday.
Rear Admiral Karl O. Thomas, the Commander of Task Force 70 and Battle Force 7th Fleet that includes the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), said they conduct freedom of navigation operations here because they want to ensure maritime security and stability in the world’s most vital trade sea lanes, where $5.3 trillion worth of ship-borne goods travel every year.
“We conduct freedom of navigation operations wherever there are claims we feel as excessive,” Thomas told reporters who were invited by the US Embassy in Manila to experience the so-called “arrested landing and catapult assisted launch” of its C2A Greyhound on board America’s flagship aircraft carrier on Friday.
The USS Ronald Reagan is a Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered super carrier. It is America’s flagship carrier with 5,000 sailors, including 200 Filipino crew.
“We will exercise our right to fly and sail operations anywhere and so we do it here because, obviously there’s a lot of disputed territorial claims—water space, air space—in this part of the world and that
is part of our job. And one thing that we do on a fairly routine basis is to exercise that not only for the US benefits, but for the entire region’s benefits,” Thomas said.
He also exhorted other countries to send their naval forces to conduct their own freedom of navigation and overfly operations in SCS, not only to maintain security, but also to promote peace and stability in the region.
“We encourage other countries to do the same thing so that we are all operating under international law,” Thomas said.
Without saying so, Thomas implied that the presence of US naval forces in the South China sea would act as a constraint on Beijing’s aggressive behavior, calling the 7th Fleet “a stabilizing and securing presence in this part of the world.”
China, meanwhile, said the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea does not define the bilateral relations between the two states
“It is our belief that South China Sea issue is not the sum total of China-Philippine relations, nor disputes, the sum total of South China Sea issues,” Chinese envoy to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said
Thursday during the embassy’s reception for China’s 70th founding year.
President Rodrigo Duterte met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in August during a five-day visit to China to assert the country’s arbitral victory in 2016 that spelled out the Philippines’ marine entitlements and junked Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
But Xi said China will not recognize the ruling of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.
President Duterte said he was not satisfied with Xi’s response but opted not to press the matter since the Chinese leader was then under stress due to the political unrest in Hong Kong.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the relationship between the two countries is “better than ever” and that the government is “experiencing good economic trading strides” with China.
“We are also experiencing growth in tourism from China. We are exporting more of our agricultural products to China. We are seeing many businesses and investors come from China,” Andanar said during the celebration.
“Our government, and the government of the People’s Republic of China are working together,” he added.
Duterte has been criticized for his “economic pivot” to China as the government entered into several loans and agreements with Beijing under his term.
But Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Eduardo Malaya said the two countries have developed “close relations and mutual trust” in recent years.
“As with any journey, we might on occasion encounter challenges, but the road before us is broad. And as we continue moving forward in good faith, mutual respect, and cooperation between two friends, no
obstacle should be insurmountable,” Malaya said.
Malaya, who spoke on behalf of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who is in New York City for the 74th United Nations General Assembly.
In his speech before UN leaders, Locsin said member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations asked “mutual restraint” and “complete respect” for United Nations Conventions on Law of the Seas.
“We’ve all asked of each other—ASEAN members and China—for mutual restraint and complete respect for UNCLOS, to which we are signatories binding ourselves unqualifiedly thereto. Including China,” he said. With MJ Blancaflor