The US military opposes the use of force by countries locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea and will maintain its presence in the strategic region for years to come, an American commander said on Wednesday.
The comments by Adm. Robert Willard, the head of the US Pacific Command, follow remarks last month by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that outraged China.
She told a conference of Southeast and East Asian ministers that the US had a "national interest" in seeing the territorial disputes resolved through a "collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants."
China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, which is strewn with disputed groups of islands, including the Spratly archipelago also claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Willard said that Washington does not take sides in the disputes but added it will oppose any use "of force or any forms of coercion to stake these claims on the part of any single nation at the expense of the others."
He said China's "assertive" behaviour in the South China Sea was on the agenda in annual defense talks in Manila today with Philippine military officials.
The two allies, which signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951, also discussed previous plans outlining how they can protect one another in case conflict breaks out in the disputed region, Willard said without elaborating.
"We discussed the assertiveness that we're experiencing by the Chinese in the South China Sea and the concerns that that has generated within the region," he told a news conference.
He said American forces will continue with their presence in the region for years to come to keep its sea lanes and air space safe for the huge traffic of commercial cargo.
Willard also urged the countries in the region to build adequate militaries to help keep the peace.