Giving assurances on July 17, the new U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet said that American military might is well-positioned to defend its allies from Chinese threats to the South China Sea. Territorial disputes between China and other Asian nations has heightened tensions throughout the region. Admiral Scott Swift said that the U.S. Navy will send more assets to the region besides the four coastal combat ships already there. The admiral said that he is “very interested” in strengthening the annual combat exercises the Navy holds with several allies. Japan is expected to participate in future exercises, having already participated in the July 5 “Talisman Sabre” exercise with the US in Australia.
Swift praised The Philippines for participating in military exercises with Japan, for example, which held search and rescue drills for the first time with the Philippine navy on board a Japanese P-3C Orion surveillance plane in the South China Sea in June 2015. China condemned the drills with Philippine forces. For his part, Swift said "multilateralism has always increased stability in my experience."
Speaking in Manila, Adm. Swift told journalists that he is aware of allies’ worries over China. "The reason that people continue to ask about the long-term commitment and intentions of the Pacific Fleet is reflective really of all the uncertainty that has generated in the theatre now," Swift said. "If we had the entire Unites States Navy here in the region, I think people would still be asking, 'Can you bring more?'" Swift said he is "very satisfied with the resources that I have available to me as the Pacific Fleet commander," and added, "we are ready and prepared to respond to any contingency that the president may suggest would be necessary." Swift also tried to express neutrality over the disputed claims over the Spratlys, saying that the United States does not take sides in the issue while confirming that it will defend freedom of navigation in the disputed waters and elsewhere. Trying to allay fears, Swift pointed out that the U.S. aided The Philippines following the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan disaster.
(Chinese island-building activity, satellite image)
Tensions have grown steadily in recent years between China and other Asian countries but spiked in 2014 when China began its island-building campaign on at least seven reefs in the archipelago known as the Spratlys. China claims that it will use the Spratlys for fishing. Swift said that even while the jurisdiction over the islands remains unclear, the U.S. remains committed to conducting exercises there. "I don't feel any change from a military perspective about impacting any operations that the Pacific Fleet engages in," he said. On July 15, China condemned the Philippines for conducting for a rusting, grounded ship at the Spratlys. China demanded removal of the vessel and said that it "reserved the right to take further measures." In the past, China has harassed Filipino fishing vessels and even fired shots. China would not say what would constitute “further measures,” but pointed the finger at the Philippines as the “real trouble maker.”
The Philippines grounded the 330-foot-long BRP Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. Small fishing boats have been bringing welding equipment, and materials such as cement and steel in an effort to keep the rusting hulk from collapse. Manila claims the shoal for itself, since it lies just 105 nautical miles southwest of the Philippine region of Palawan. Therefore, the shoal is within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone it claims. China says the reef is part of its territory since it claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea. There is a small group of Filipino Marines onboard the Sierra Madre. China says it is "extremely dissatisfied with and resolutely opposed” to the repairs. "China's determination to maintain its national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights is resolute. China again urges the Philippines to immediately stop its illegal encroachments and fulfill its promises to remove the ship," the Chinese foreign ministry added.
(Phillipine Navy ship Sierra Madre)
Headquartered in Hawaii, the U.S. Pacific Fleet bristles with ships and armaments. Based at Pearl Harbor, the fleet has 200 ships and submarines, nearly 1,100 aircraft and more than 140,000 sailors and civilians. Swift admitted, “I can’t be everywhere at once,” given that the fleet covers nearly have of the Earth’s surface where more than half of the world's population resides.
He praised Filipino efforts to engage in military exercises with U.S. allies like Japan, which held search and rescue drills for the first time with the Philippine navy on board a Japanese Self-Defense Force P-3C Orion surveillance plane in the South China Sea last month. China condemned the Japanese military drills with Filipino forces.
On July 16, China called on Japan to avoid "crippling regional peace and security," after the lower house of Japan's Diet passed legislation that would allow Japan to deploy troops abroad for the first time since the cessation of hostilities of the Second World War. The change has angered some in Japan, which has an active pacifist and anti-nuclear movement. Speaking for China, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said "It is fully justified to ask if Japan is going to give up its exclusively defence-oriented policy.” Hua added, "We solemnly urge the Japanese side to... refrain from jeopardising China’s sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability," in a statement that appeared on a government website, in what was described as "an unprecedented move since the Second World War."
Japan and China are also engaged in a row over disputed territories, such as the Shenkaku Islands. Beijing frequently remonstrates with the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for not showing enough contrition for the 1937 Japanese invasion of China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua referred to the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which she called "the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression." She added, "We solemnly urge the Japanese side to draw hard lessons from history." To mark the occasion in September, China is preparing a massive military parade and has invited the Japanese premier to attend.
China has increased the speed of its military spending at double-digit percentage rates for decades, worrying its neighbors and the U.S. A number of Chinese military exercises have been conducted near Japan, while the Chinese navy completed its first circumnavigation of the Japanese archipelago in 2013. In May 2015, Chinese army flew over the Miyako Strait between Japan's Miyako and Okinawa Islands.
Japanese Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano said on June 16 that in response to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, it is possible Japan will conduct patrols and surveillance activities there in the future. Regarding "talk" of such patrols, Kawano told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, "But our position on this is that we consider this as a potential future issue to be considered depending on how things pan out.” While in Washington, Kawano met with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, to discuss implementation of updated bilateral defense guidelines, according to a statement. Kawano said he expects China to expand its reach in the region. “My sense is that this trend will continue into the future where China will go beyond the island chain in the Pacific…So if anything, I would believe that the situation will worsen.”