MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The new U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet assured allies Friday that American forces are well equipped and ready to respond to any contingency in the South China Sea, where long-seething territorial disputes have set off widespread uncertainties.
Adm. Scott Swift, who assumed command of the Pacific Fleet in May, said the Navy may deploy more than the four coastal combat ships it has committed to the region. Swift also disclosed that he was "very interested" in expanding annual combat exercises the U.S. Navy holds with each of several allies into a multi-nation drill, possibly including Japan.
Asked how many resources the U.S. military is ready to devote to the South China Sea, Swift told a small group of journalists in Manila that he understood the concerns of America's allies.
"The reason that people continue to ask about the long-term commitment and intentions of the Pacific Fleet is reflective really of all the uncertainty that has generated in the theatre now," Swift said. "If we had the entire Unites States Navy here in the region, I think people would still be asking, 'Can you bring more?'"
Territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have flared on and off for years, creating fears that the South China Sea could spark Asia's next major armed conflict. Tensions flared again last year when China began massive island-building on at least seven reefs it controls in an offshore region called the Spratlys.
Addressing those concerns, Swift said he was "very satisfied with the resources that I have available to me as the Pacific Fleet commander," adding, "we are ready and prepared to respond to any contingency that the president may suggest would be necessary."
The U.S., Swift stressed, doesn't take sides but would press ahead with operations to ensure freedom of navigation in disputed waters and elsewhere. "The United States has been very clear that it does not support the use of coercion and force," he said.
Swift cited the U.S. military's massive response to help the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 as a demonstration of America's commitment to help a troubled ally.
The U.S. military has stationed in Singapore the USS Fort Worth, one of four high-tech combat ships American officials have pledged to deploy to keep watch on the South China Sea and other areas.
Swift said more could be deployed in the region in the future because the Navy plans to acquire 52 more such vessels for use worldwide.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet, which is headquartered in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, is regarded as the world's largest, with about 200 ships and submarines, nearly 1,100 aircraft and more than 140,000 sailors and civilians. But it also operates in a vast area that encompasses nearly half of the Earth's surface and is home to more than half of the world's population.
"I can't be everywhere at once," Swift said.
He praised Philippine efforts to hold exercises for military readiness with U.S. allies like Japan, which held search and rescue drills for the first time with the Philippine navy on board a Japanese Self-Defense Force P-3C Orion surveillance plane in the South China Sea last month. "Multilateralism has always increased stability," he said.
China condemned those military drills, although Japanese military officials said they were not held in areas of the South China Sea disputed by Beijing and other governments.
It remains unclear what China intends to do with the artificial islands but Swift said those areas remain disputed and added they would not hinder U.S. military operations in the disputed region.
"I don't feel any change from a military perspective about impacting any operations that the Pacific Fleet engages in," he said.