U.S. may step up South China Sea patrols

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivers his speech during the first plenary session of the 17th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue an annual defense and security forum in Asia in Singapore Saturday

Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich has called for all concerned parties to act responsibility to maintain order and make the South China Sea "a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship".

"Yet China's policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes".

Defense Minister Florence Parly said Sunday rules-based global order must prevail in the South China Sea, in a speech that may have been directed at China, the Straits Times reported.

At least five French warships sailed through the South China Sea previous year, according to the French defence minister.

Meanwhile, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, also have military installments in the area.

Security analysts have criticised China's actions of building military facilities on the disputed islands, saying this is done with the aim to leave other countries no choice but to accept its de facto sovereignty.

The U.S. response to China's weaponization of the islands continued on Sunday, as two U.S. warships sailed close to the Paracel Islands, which lie north of the Spratlys.

Weeks earlier, U.S. intelligence announced there was a high possibility Beijing had deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as part of ongoing military exercises.

An editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper said the tension in the South China Sea was "due to the USA continuing to increase its military presence in the region, forcing China to naturally upgrade its defensive weapons on the islands".

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Mr Mattis, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore, said: "Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion".

"What we have seen in the last few weeks is just the start, significantly more is being planned", said one Western diplomat, referring to a freedom-of-navigation patrol late last month. The Defense Ministers of Vietnam and Australia both addressed the issue during a separate question and answer session at the summit Saturday.

He also attacked what he said were excessive loans made under China's Belt and Road Initiative that were binding smaller nations in debt.

Wang Mingliang, a defence expert cited in the statement, said the exercises on islands in the were aimed at helping the air force "strengthen its combat capability to deal with maritime security threats".

China claims its actions in the South China Sea are entirely peaceful and meant to protect its citizens and trading interests.

South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-moo also told the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit that U.S. forces in South Korea was a "separate issue from North Korea's nuclear issue".

"I believe we should broaden this effort even further", said Parly, adding that Europe was mobilising more widely to support this endeavour and there were also German observers on board.

Under President Donald Trump's new National Security Strategy unveiled past year, US policymakers are now frequently pledging to defend a "free and open Indo-Pacific", a term that is more inclusive than the more widely used "Asia Pacific" as it encompasses the Indian Ocean and India, a key USA ally that is also being threatened by Beijing's aggression.

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