China has laid claim to a number of islands in the South China Sea, building airbases on tiny spits of land while installing powerful radar and missile launchers. Here's why. (Jason Aldag,Julie Vitkovskaya/The Washington Post / Satellite photos courtesy of CSIS)

The Navy’s top admiral in the Pacific said Tuesday that there is a “palpable sense” in the region that “might makes right” has taken root as a philosophy — and he warned that the present chaos in the Middle East, eastern Europe and northern Africa may be an example of what the future could hold.

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said at a maritime conference in Australia that both the acceleration of military activities in the region and the lack of transparency about them are concerns, according to a copy of the remarks provided by his staff. He called for Pacific nations to adhere to longstanding rules in the region that have been a “gold standard” for avoiding conflict.


U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott H. Swift addresses a conference on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, in Canberra, Australia. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)

Swift also underscored the importance of freedom of navigation operations, which the United States runs across the world to demonstrate that international waterways are open to all. In recent months, the Pentagon has carried out two such missions in the South China Sea and encouraged partners in the region to do the same. That has angered China, which has boosted its military presence there with radar, surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets and said that the United States should not interfere.

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“The reality is, demonstrated from the days of sail, the great British, French and Spanish armadas, as true today as then, that the canary in the coal mine of regional and global stability and prosperity isn’t found in a cave, but on international waters,” Swift said Tuesday. “We all have assumed so long these international seas are the domain of all free men. Perhaps now we too easily dismissed these freedom enablers, these guarantors of stability and prosperity, as simply ‘freedom of navigation.'”

Swift’s spoke at Australia National University at a conference focused on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, Pacific and other Asian waterways. The admiral said that India, which the Pentagon wants to partner with more closely, and smaller countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar have worked together to resolve disputes peacefully, and called for countries to do the same “east of the Straits of Malacca,” an area that includes the South China Sea.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that a contest is underway in the most vulnerable waters of the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” Swift said. “On one side is a potential return of might makes right after more than seventy years of stability. On the other is a continuum of the international rules-based system that has served us all so well, with limitless potential to continue to do so.”

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