HONOLULU, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift said China should pursue arbitration in South China Sea disputes, and if tensions escalate, an arms race could ensue.
Speaking at the Cooperative Strategy Forum held at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Swift said China's military buildup in the disputed Spratly Islands has not stopped the U.S. Pacific Fleet from carrying on operations, Stars and Stripes reported Monday.
"I'm interested — potentially to the point of fascination — about the element of militarization, but the fact of the matter is that it's not going to make any difference to my operations," Swift said.
Swift added that he is concerned that decades of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific could be marred by a return to a "might makes right" approach to the region, Kyodo News reported.
The Pacific Fleet commander said China has relied on sheer force to realize its territorial claims, and that it is pursuing a course of action that could lead to an arms race.
China's neighbors have disputed Beijing's claims and are at odds with its land reclamation activities. The Philippines has requested the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to uphold its sovereign right to areas within 200 nautical miles of the Philippine coast. China has refused to seek arbitration, and has insisted the issue be resolved bilaterally.
Beijing has denied the islands are being militarized, despite evidence from satellite images that indicated it has been building airstrips or runways and constructing radars for surveillance.
Swift said Tuesday that even if the islands "were militarized, I don't think that would change the United States' approach or the Pacific Fleet's approach...than if they weren't militarized."
The U.S. commander said he also would be unconcerned if China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone.
"It's not an exclusion zone; it's an identification zone," he said.