U.S. plans more freedom of navigation moves in S.China Sea - admiral

By Idrees Ali
Woody Island, a island in the South China Sea occupied by China and claimed by several other countries, is shown in satellite images taken on February 14, 2016 and February 3, 2016, in this handout image provided by ImageSat International N.V. 2016, on February 18, 2016. REUTERS/ImageSat International N.V. 2016/Handout via Reuters

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Command told a congressional committee on Wednesday he will carry out more, and more complex, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

"We will be doing them more, and we'll be doing them with greater complexity in the future and as the Secretary has said, we'll fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,"Admiral Harry Harris told a House Armed Services Committee hearing, referring to U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

"We must continue to operate in the South China Sea to demonstrate that that water space and the air above it is international," Harris reiterated to lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing.

On Tuesday, Harris said China is "changing the operational landscape" in the South China Sea by deploying missiles and radar as part of an effort to militarily dominate East Asia.

China is "clearly militarizing the South China (Sea) ... You'd have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise."

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

The hearing comes after China deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea's Paracel chain and radars on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys.

U.S. government sources confirmed China recently deployed fighter jets to Woody Island. It was not the first time Beijing sent jets there but it raised new questions about its intentions.

Last month, a U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a patrol within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, a move China called provocative.

The United States also has conducted sea and air patrols near artificial islands that China has built in the Spratly islands chain farther south in the South China Sea, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November.

President Barack Obama has previously said the United States planned to continue such patrols in the name of freedom of navigation.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Clarece Polke; Editing by Susan Heavey and James Dalgleish)