BANGKOK -- China's land reclamation and militarization of islands in the South China Sea lacks transparency and is causing angst in the Indo-Pacific region, according to Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, commander of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet.
In a telephone briefing on Tuesday, one day after a U.S. aircraft carrier called at a Vietnamese port for the first time in more than 40 years, Sawyer reiterated Washington's commitment to a "free and open" Indo-Pacific, and stressed that the navy would continue to operate based on the principle of freedom of navigation, in line with international laws.
Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Navy has frequently conducted so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, sailing warships within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China. The operations are aimed at challenging Beijing's claims to control nearly all of the vast body of water.
Washington has called on its allies for support, and Britain and France are reportedly planning to send ships to the South China Sea as well. China has protested this response, saying countries outside the region should stay out maritime disputes.
The four-day port call of the USS Carl Vinson and the carrier strike group's 5,500 sailors at Danang, in central Vietnam, is seen as another demonstration of U.S. opposition to China's expansive claims. The sailors were the largest contingent of U.S. military personnel on Vietnamese soil since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
"Carl Vinson being here is about Vietnam," Sawyer said. The purpose of the visit was "to continue normalizing relationship [with] the Vietnamese Navy," he said, without elaborating.
However, Sawyer did say China's land reclamation and militarization of islands is causing "angst" in the region. "The angst is because of the lack of transparency ... it's not quite clear what is going to happen down there, and I think that angst and lack of transparency is potentially disruptive to the security and stability of the region."
Ties between Washington and Hanoi have warmed under the Trump administration. Trump made an official visit to the Vietnamese capital in November last year, meeting with President Tran Dai Quang and offering to mediate between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea. Sawyer added that, following the USS Carl Vinson, he is "looking forward to bringing one of the U.S. submarines to a port in Vietnam."
Vietnam also has claims in the South China Sea, along with several other countries. It has become one of the strongest opponents of Beijing's efforts to assert itself in the area, now that the Philippines has drastically softened its stance under President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte has opted not to pursue its own claims in hopes of obtaining more economic assistance from China.
Before calling at Danang, the Carl Vinson was anchored off Manila.