KUALA LAMPUR: An American general insisted Friday the United States would not pull back from operations in the disputed South China Sea to combat Beijing’s territorial claims despite a series of accidents involving US warships.
General Terrence O'Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander, said the American military still had “credibility... all over the world” despite the incidents, which have raised concerns that the US armed forces are overstretched in Asia.
In the latest incident, the USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker off Singapore early Monday, tearing a huge hole in the vessel’s hull and leaving two sailors dead and eight missing.
It was the fourth accident involving an American warship in the Pacific this year, two of them fatal.
The McCain had been heading to the city-state after conducting a “freedom of navigation” mission -- sailing close to a contested island in the South China Sea in a show of strength to challenge Beijing's territorial claims.
The US has been carrying out a growing number of such operations in recent years as China increasingly asserts its claims to almost the entire sea, despite partial counter-claims from some Asian neighbours.
“There is no setback to those (freedom of navigation) operations following these incidents,” O'Shaughnessy told reporters during a visit to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
“We stand firm that we are going to sail and fly anywhere where international rules allow. We will continue to do that.
“Every day, we have operations within the South China Sea and areas surrounding it.”
He added that the latest collision should not eclipse the work of the US military as a whole.
"I don’t think that we should let one incident overshadow the great capability that the United States of America brings across all services," he said.
Still, the incidents have provided a propaganda windfall to US rivals like China, with the foreign ministry in Beijing voicing concerns American warships posed a "security threat" to civilian vessels in the South China Sea.
Monday’s accident was the second involving an American destroyer in two months after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off Japan in June, killing seven sailors.
A multinational search operation at sea for the missing sailors on the McCain was called off Thursday, with divers now focusing on flooded compartments in the warship.
The remains of a second sailor were recovered from the ship late Thursday and identified as Dustin Louis Doyon, the US Navy said.