Philippine marines take position next to US Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles during an amphibious landing exercise at the beach of a Philippine Navy training center facing the South China Sea in October 2018. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

The United States is currently in talks with allies about the possibility of expanding American military presence around the South China Sea, a top navy commander suggested this week, prompting a rebuke from Beijing.

Speaking at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral Philip Davidson told lawmakers that “the environment is changing so drastically in the South China Sea that it’s going to require new approaches in many cases.”

Referencing the new National Defense Strategy, released last year, Davidson said a reassessment of the US military’s presence in the region was needed.

“This is gonna require us to revisit some of the places in which we operate and rotate forces, absolutely. It’s gonna require us to think about some places – if not bases – and we are in conversations with partners and allies about what some of the opportunities might be there,” he said. Davidson also told the senators that some of what he wanted to say would need to be done in a closed hearing held later that day.

In response to the comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying questioned Washington’s assessment of the situation in the South China Sea.

Referring to China’s actions as “militarization,” Hua said, was just an attempt to find an excuse to expand the US presence in the region.

“I think everyone must remember, just two days ago, two US warships trespassed without permission into the waters near China’s Nansha Reef,” she said. Hua went on to defend China’s presence in the waters, citing a recently established “maritime rescue center.”

During the congressional hearing on Tuesday, senators also pressed Davidson on the state of US-Philippines ties, expressing concern about President Rodrigo Duterte’s shift to building closer ties with China.

The US commander played down the pivot, stressing that bilateral military ties are “trending in a positive direction,” despite friction at the political level.

“There is no doubt that at the political level some of the relationship has been fractious,” he acknowledged. But he added that the US “should take a little bit of comfort” in the “vagueness” of recent deals signed with China by Duterte’s administration.

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