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Amid accusations that the Philippines was not taking advantage of an arbitral ruling that upheld Philippine sovereign rights over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea, Esperon said, "This Administration does not and will not abandon the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea disputes".

Meanwhile, Grossman welcomed the fact that Vietnam has significantly raised the level of defense cooperation with countries like Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. In March, for the first time, a U.S. aircraft carrier made a port visit to Vietnam, emphasizing growing defense ties with Washington.

Just days ago, U.S. sent two of its warships in the disputed waters as it conducted "freedom of navigation", which provoked China and led the latter to warn them off.

A statement on the Chinese defence ministry's website said the class guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam entered waters China claims in the Paracel island group "without the permission of the Chinese government".

Mattis said USA ships are maintaining a "steady drumbeat" of naval operations and will confront "what we believe is out of step with global law".

The Trump administration should take tougher action to counter Chinese militarization in the South China Sea, a bipartisan trio of senators has urged in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"We are now working hard for a framework that would not go against the Constitution for the exploration of natural resources". The waters in the South China Sea have been to be strategic by Japan, China and other navies of Southeast Asian countries.

Dr Chong said he believes FONOPs by the Quad can help send signals to China that "This is an open ocean, we have rights to go through under global law".

"It's unhelpful to mutual understanding between China and the US".

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Five lighthouses on five islands in the Spratlys - Pag-asa Island, Likas (West York) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay) Island, Kota (Loaita) Island and Patag (Flat) Island - will be built, Esperon said.

"China also assured us with our good relationship that we are not their enemy", he said.

"President Duterte's approach is prudent, patient and pragmatic".

However, China has continued to ignore a 2016 Hague agreement and claims the South China Sea in its entirety, deploying missile systems on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef.

The massive military event, known as RIMPAC, is described by the US Navy as the world's largest global maritime warfare exercise and involves more than 20 countries from across the world. "But it's global waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation".

"China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States", Adm. Philip Davidson, the new head of U.S. Pacific Command, said in April.

U.S. Navy Adm. Philip Davidson will take over PACOM from Adm. Harry Harris during the change of command on Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters during a flight to Hawaii, Mattis said the South China Sea was worldwide waters and "a lot of nations" wanted to see freedom of navigation maintained in the area.

Harris has been nominated to become the next USA ambassador to South Korea.