US Navy chief would welcome Australian, Indonesian action in South China Sea

Jakarta: The US Navy's operations chief would like Australian and Indonesian maritime forces to have a greater presence in the disputed South China Sea, including by sailing controversial freedom of navigation operations.

US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said on Thursday that each nation in south-east Asia had to determine its own response to China's moves to militarise disputed islands in the South China Sea.

But asked by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald whether Australia, Indonesia and other states in the region should conduct freedom of navigation operations to challenge China's claim of sovereignty, he said navies are "meant to get underway".

US marines patrol the USS Blue Ridge as it anchors off Manila, Philippines. America has vowed to “sail, fly and operate wherever the law allows us to” amid China’s objections in the South China Sea.Credit:AP

"I think every nation is going to have to assess the situation and their own approach. But at some point navies are meant to get under way and be present and provide options to their [countries'] leadership," he said.

"How they choose to do that is a matter of their national sovereign approach".

Both Australia and Indonesia were strong supporters of the rules-based international order, he said.

"Where we can see opportunities to work together, exercise together, be present together, those I think are [things] that we are constantly looking for … with both of those navies."

Admiral Richardson's comments come as he completes a swing through the region that has included visits to Japan, India and Singapore.

Last week two US Navy ships completed a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of some of the islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, angering Beijing.

Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef, in the South China Sea.

US officials have indicated for several years they would like to see Canberra carry out a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of one of the islands claimed by China, but the Coalition government has declined to do so.

Labor's defence spokesman Richard Marles said last July that all options should be on the table.

The US argues that such operations challenge China's excessive maritime claims and preserve access to waterways governed by international law. China, on the other hand, regards the militarised islands as its territory and argues the US should seek permission from Beijing.

Admiral Richardson parried suggestions that such operations escalated tensions with China, arguing the US Navy carried them out all over the world and it was "certainly not meant to be provocative".

"This is part of the way the US shows its strong advocacy for the rules-based order," he said.

US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, left, and Commander of the Chinese navy, Admiral Wu Shengli in 2016.Credit:AP

In addition to China, other nations including Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have either island or maritime claims to parts of the South China Sea.

Indonesia does not claim any of the disputed islands but it has forcefully claimed sovereignty over a section of what it calls the North Natuna sea, part of which is also claimed by China. Late last year it opened a small a military base on an island in the North Natuna Sea, on the edge of the South China Sea.

Australia is not a claimant state but it has consistently backed all nations having free access to the vital strategic waterway, through which about one third of global shipping passes each year.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said Admiral Richardson was being "polite" and that "there is no question that America would like to see other countries pursuing freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea".

"If you come within 12 nautical miles you are essentially saying you do not recognise China’s claim to sovereignty. Australia does routinely sail through the South China Sea, but we have not conducted an operation to take take us within 12 nautical miles," he said.

"I think it’s a matter of some disappointment to the US that other countries such as Australia have failed to do this."

Mr Jennings added that he was hopeful that, if Labor wins the election on Saturday, it would take another look at conducting such an operation.

Comment has been sought from the Coalition and Labor.

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