US Won't Back Down on South China Sea, Navy's Top Officer Says

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, left, and Commander of the Chinese navy, Adm. Wu Shengli shake hands at the Chinese Navy Headquarters in Beijing, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool)
U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, left, and Commander of the Chinese navy, Adm. Wu Shengli shake hands at the Chinese Navy Headquarters in Beijing, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool)

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson used a visit to the port city of Qingdao on Wednesday to push back against Chinese bluster and deliver a message that the U.S. will continue to oppose China's artificial islands and military buildup in the region.

"This will not change," said Richardson, who visited the Chinese North Sea Fleet headquarters in Qingdao and met with fleet commander Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, the Navy said.

"The U.S. Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all," he said.

Richardson appealed to the Chinese to "take advantage of our common culture as sailors" to avoid confrontation, while calling on the government to stop the intimidation of regional allies and settle territorial disputes through negotiation.

"I am supportive of a continued and deepening navy-to-navy relationship, but I will be continuously reassessing my support conditioned on continued safe and professional interactions at sea. In this area, we must judge each other by our deeds and actions, not just by our words," Richardson said.

The five-day trip was Richardson's first to China, and it got off to a rocky start in Beijing on Monday where he was lectured by Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy, on China's rejection of an international tribunal's ruling last week against China's claims in the South China Sea.

"The Chinese navy is prepared to react to any infringement of rights or aggression," Wu said, according to official Chinese media, and "efforts to force us to succumb to pressure will only be counterproductive. We will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands," where the Philippines and other nations also claim rights, Wu said, referring to the Spratly islands.

"The Nansha Islands are China's inherent territory, and our necessary construction on the islands is reasonable, justified and lawful," he said. "Any attempt to force China to give in through flexing military muscles will only have the opposite effect."

Last week, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, which lacked any enforcement power, rejected China's claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea, ruling in favor of the Philippines.

In a background briefing last week, a senior State Department official said that the U.S. expected China's immediate reaction to the ruling would be to bluster and portray itself as the victim of a U.S. power play.

But the official also expressed the hope that China would ultimately agree to joint development in the South China Sea after a cooling off period.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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