While trust among Southeast Asian nations is improving, especially to counter threats from piracy and terrorism, China is acting to protect its own interests at the cost of others, according to U.S. Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson.
Gabrielson, commander of the Logistics Group Western Pacific, said nations should not seek to undermine the “existing system” through unilateral actions, without naming a particular country. He later said China, which has turned reclaimed reefs in the disputed South China Sea into military outposts, was proceeding with a “long-term plan” for the region.
“It’s important for everyone who has an interest in the region to do their part to understand that if the world does not come together to protect its own interests then China will do everything it can to protect what it sees as its interests at the cost of anyone else,” Gabrielson said on Monday at a briefing in Singapore.
“China is not worried about what anyone else values,” he said. “It is only worried about what China values, and from the United States perspective, that is a problem.”
“That is where the mutual respect really breaks down, and we’re very concerned about that,” Gabrielson added.
He was speaking on the sidelines of naval and coast guard exercises involving the U.S. and 11 nations including Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, focused on information sharing and training in counter-piracy and maritime security.
The drills come after the recent collision of the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with a petroleum tanker near Singapore, which killed 10 U.S. sailors. The accident — the Navy’s fourth serious incident in the western Pacific this year — raised questions about whether the U.S. fleet has been stretched too thinly, forced to combine training with deployments over a vast area teeming with U.S. strategic interests.
Gabrielson did not comment on the McCain incident, instead focusing on the current exercises the U.S. is involved in, which run until Friday. He said while areas of friction also existed between Southeast Asian nations — on everything from territorial matters to food and natural resource security — trust was on the rise.
“Many of the nations are really doing a good job of understanding that we have to set some of these issues aside — as the Chinese would say, kick them into the tall grass — in order to deal with the issues at hand,” he said.
“The United States encourages all nations to think very deeply about how we move into the future in those relationships because the existing system was built through a long and thoughtful series of negotiations,” Gabrielson said. “To undermine and upset that system should not be done on a bilateral or unilateral basis,” he said.
While the drills — known as SEACAT — are focused on information sharing that could help improve coordination over disputed territory, there are no plans currently to include North Asian nations, Gabrielson said. China claims the majority of the South China Sea, including areas contested by the likes of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The exercises involve ships being tracked, located, boarded and inspected at sea.
“There is an aspect of this that is like the old telephone game — I heard something and I tell you something and you tell your neighbor,” Gabrielson said. “So it’s a question of maintaining the quality and the clarity of the information that’s gathered. That’s an important skill, because there are humans involved.”
Alongside territorial disputes, the exercises come at a time of heightened concern about terrorism as the Islamic State is weakened in the Middle East and some fighters return to Southeast Asia.
“From the perspective of whether or not there is increasing risk of radicalism and terrorism and piracy, and human trafficking and narcotics trafficking, and illicit traffic of many forms, there is no question that risk is growing,” Gabrielson said. “I think that is well understood and widely acknowledged.”