The commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Gary North, is hearing quite a lot from regional partners and allies about the steadily rising tensions in the South China Sea. “The nations we deal with are very concerned about it,” North said in a meeting with reporters Tuesday afternoon at AFA’s Air & Space Conference near Washington, D.C. The Chinese have increasingly asserted territorial claims in a region surrounding the Spratly Islands—an area claimed by several countries and known to have large deposits of oil and gas. North noted, “Economic throughput is vital to this area,” such that “when you have nations that are flexing and attempting to take advantage of the commons, it becomes a challenge.” He emphasized, “The safety and security of the throughput in the area is concerning.” He maintained, “The key to all this is understanding, on the water and in the air,” noting, however, that many of the countries in the area don’t have a large capacity to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. He said, “The real issue is, how do you have a collective international understanding that will prevent things such as ships crossing nets or military vessels not adhering to laws of the sea?”
U.S. Air Force F-35s and F-22s regularly deploy deep into the Pacific region from Alaska, Utah, and Hawaii. In the future, though, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would like to see the Air Force permanently station fifth-generation aircraft west of the international date line—closer to China.