SINGAPORE — Speakers at an Asian security summit have called for a continuation of U.S. Navy freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, with the dispute still on participants’ minds even as other regional security challenges have made the news in recent weeks.
In their respective speeches, the defense ministers of Australia and Japan have supported U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ assertion that the U.S. military will continue to operate in spaces allowed by international law in their respective speeches at the annual Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.
Organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies or IISS (Asia), the event brings together government and non-governmental defense and security professionals from Asia and around the world to discuss regional events, and is the biggest such summit in the region.
In his speech at the first plenary session on Saturday, Mattis said the U.S. military “will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond,” adding that “our operations throughout the region are an expression of our willingness to defend both our interests and the freedoms enshrined in international law.”
Echoing that sentiment, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada reiterated her support for freedom of navigation operations by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, saying that they “represent the U.S. resolve to maintain the open, free and peaceful international maritime order.”
Inada also used her speech to highlight continuing tensions over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas although she did not mention any country by name, noting that in the former “government ships of a certain country continue to make periodic incursions into Japanese territorial waters” while “the construction of outposts in the South China Sea and their use for military purposes continues.”
Speaking immediately after Inada, Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said Australia “will also continue to strongly support the right of others to exercise these rights.” She added that Australian military ships and aircraft will continue to “operate in the South China Sea, as they have for decades, consistent with the rights of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.”
Under Operation Gateway, the Royal Australian Air Force deploys a single Lockheed-Martin AP-3C Orion aircraft to Butterworth, Malaysia between four and eight times a year, conducting regular flights over fortnightly periods.
According to the Australian defense department, these flights are Australia’s contribution to the preservation of regional security and stability in South East Asia, and include maritime surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Both Mattis and Inada also stressed that last year’s permanent court of arbitration ruling on the case brought on by the Philippines against Chinese actions in the South China Sea was legally binding, with all three ministers urging the claimant countries to abide by it and to use it as a starting point to manage the dispute, although China had refused to participate in the arbitration process and said it will ignore the ruling.
The ministers were not the only ones to weigh in on the need to continue the patrols, with IISS-Asia’s Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security William Choong telling assembled media that the U.S. “needs to enforce the freedom of the seas,” noting there was a seven-month hiatus in freedom of navigation patrols until the destroyer USS Dewey sailed within twelve nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea on May 24, the first such patrol under the Trump administration.