MANILA (Reuters) – China’s “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea, including its Coast Guard’s use of water cannons against a Philippine ship, must be challenged and investigated, the commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet said on Sunday.
Vice Admiral Karl Thomas assured the Philippines of US support in the face of “common challenges” in the region, saying “My forces are out here for a reason.”
The largest of the US Navy’s forward fleets, the Seventh Fleet is headquartered in Japan and operates up to 70 ships, has around 150 aircraft and more than 27,000 sailors.
The company operates over an area of 124 million square kilometers (48 million square miles) from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
“You have to challenge people who I think are operating in a gray area. When they take a little bit more and more and they push you, you have to push back, you have to sail and act,” Thomas told Reuters.
“There really is no better example of aggressive behavior than the August 5 activity on the shoal,” he added.
On August 5, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel used water cannons against a Filipino boat carrying supplies for troops aboard a warship Manila that had deliberately run aground on a shoal in the South China Sea, a fault line in the rivalry between the two USA and Beijing in the region.
Thomas said he had discussions with Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, the head of the Philippine Western Command, which oversees the South China Sea, “to understand what his challenges are, to find ways to be able to help him.”
“We definitely had common challenges. That’s why I wanted to better understand how he views the operations he’s in charge of. And I want to make sure he understands what I had available,” said Thomas, who was in Manila for a port call.
On Saturday, Thomas said he boarded a flight from Manila “to go out and explore the South China Sea.”
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The Philippines won an international arbitration award against China in 2016 after a court found Beijing’s sweeping claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea had no legal basis.
China has established militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea and its claim to historical sovereignty overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie)