U.S. Increased Sea Patrols to Send Message to China, Defense Secretary Says

Andreo Calonzo and Glen Carey

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is conducting more patrols in the South China Sea to send a signal to China that it intends to maintain freedom in the area that’s crucial for global trade, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.

Esper said at a media briefing in Manila the U.S. “rejects attempts by any nation to use coercion or intimidation to advance international interests at the expense of others.”

He also urged nations with South China Sea claims to take a public position and assert sovereign rights to get China “on the right path.”

“The clear signal we’re trying to send is not that we’re opposing China per se, but we all stand for international law, and that we think China should abide by them as well,” Esper said.

Esper said the U.S. has conducted “more freedom of navigation operations in the past year or so than we did have in the past 20-plus years.”

While Esper didn’t elaborate, the U.S. has confirmed at least five so-called freedom of navigation operations to challenge excessive maritime claims in the Spratly and Paracel island chains, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s the same number that were publicly reported in 2018.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit back at a separate briefing in Beijing, saying the U.S. has long sought to “fan the flames” and create “chaos in the South China Sea.” Geng added that China was working with regional countries to ensure stability and urged the U.S. to stop acting as a “disruptor.”

In Manila Esper also said the U.S. remains committed to the 68-year-old defense treaty that binds it to come to the Philippines’ aid in case of an armed attack on its territory. The treaty applies to the South China Sea, he added.

The Philippines is discussing with the U.S. how the defense treaty can be made clearer, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. He added that the two nations’ relationship had “suffered setbacks” but remained enduring.

Esper also pledged to continue supporting Philippine military upgrades and counter-terrorism efforts and said it was good to clarify the defense treaty to respond to changing times.

(Updates with comments from Esper, China’s Foreign Ministry in grafs 5-7)

--With assistance from Peter Martin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andreo Calonzo in Manila at acalonzo1@bloomberg.net;Glen Carey in Manila at gcarey8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cecilia Yap at cyap19@bloomberg.net, Muneeza Naqvi

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