The commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet said Sunday that the US must “challenge” China’s “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea, an area that has become a potential flashpoint for a conflict between Washington and Beijing.
The comments from Vice Adm. Karl Thomas came after incidents between Chinese and Philippine vessels near a disputed reef known as Second Thomas Shoal. One incident on August 5 involved Chinese boats firing a water cannon on Philippine vessels that were trying to resupply a grounded ship on the reef that Manila uses as a base of operations.
Thomas assured that the US would back the Philippines in the face of “shared challenges” and that Seventh Fleet forces, which are based in Japan, are “out here for a reason.”
“You have to challenge people I would say operating in a grey zone. When they’re taking a little bit more and more and pushing you, you’ve got to push back, you have to sail and operate,” he told Reuters. “There’s really no better example of aggressive behavior than the activity on August 5 on the shoal.”
Thomas made the comments while in Manila, where he met with the head of Philippine operations in the South China Sea, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos. “We certainly shared challenges. So I wanted to better understand how he views the operations that he’s responsible for. And I want to make sure that he understood what I had available,” Thomas said.
In recent years, US officials have affirmed that the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty covers attacks on Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, meaning the US is ready to intervene if the dispute between Beijing and Manila ever turns hot. Back in May, the US made the war guarantee official by adding new guidelines to the treaty.