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‘We’re not going away,’ US says amid China suggestion to exclude it in military drills in the region

The United States has no intention of leaving Asia or downgrading its engagement in the region despite China’s reported suggestion to exclude Washington from military exercises with Southeast Asian nations in the disputed South China Sea, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

“We’re not going away,” said Walter Douglas, deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy, in a round-table forum with journalists in Manila.

“The United States has been part of this region for 200 years. We’re not gonna change that,” he added.

A draft communiqué seen by the media at a Southeast Asian meeting in Singapore early this month indicated that China wants regular joint military drills with the ASEAN and should not involve countries outside the region unless “parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”

China, which considers the sea disputes a purely Asian issue, is opposed to any foreign intervention, particularly from the US.

Although the US does not take sides in the sea disputes that involve China, the Philippines Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, Washington have repeatedly stressed that as a Pacific power it has a national interest in freedom of navigation, maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and unimpeded and lawful trade across its sealanes.

“It’s important that our role be recognized that we’re here,” Douglas said. “The United States is probably more interested in the region than even before.”

Defying China’s warnings to keep out of the disputes, US military vessels and aircrafs continue to sail and fly over near China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, in a direct challenge to what it calls Beijing’s excessive claims in the resource-rich waters.

Such move sparked angry protests and radio warnings from China.

But Douglas insisted “these are open seaways.”

“We have always sailed there, we will sail, fly, operate as we have always have in the region. There is an international law to follow on this,” he said.

Douglas noted that the arbitral tribunal decision last July 2016 on the case filed by the Philippines against China has denigrated Beijing’s massive claim in waters.

“That defined a lot of what is going on in that region. I think all claimants should live up to that,” he said.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 90 percent of the waters, where undersea gas, oil and mineral deposits have been discovered in several areas.

A code of conduct is being hammered out by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations aimed at preventing conflicting territorial claims from erupting into violent confrontations or worse, an economically-devastating major conflict.

Douglas said the US expects a code “that’s in line with international law.”

“That’s how it should be,” he said. “As long as there is something like that – it’s open, it’s transparent, it’s in line with international law, it can help. If it’s not, then that’s another issue.” — RSJ, GMA News