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US senator calls for joint exercises to challenge 'bully' China

U.S. Sen. John McCain delivers a speech at the invitation of the United States Studies Centre in Sydney, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. In February, the Republican senator leaped to Australia's defense after President Donald Trump got into a heated discussion with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over an Obama-era agreement on the resettlement of refugees. AP/Rick Rycroft

MANILA, Philippines — An American senator suggested that United States-led multilateral exercises could be a good way to push back against Beijing's excessive claims in the disputed South China Sea.

"If the Chinese are able to prevent us from exercising freedom of navigation then I think that has a profound consequences for the entire region," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said in a speech in Sydney.

McCain, chair of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, stressed that China's vast territorial claims have no basis in international law.

"The challenge is that as China has grown wealthier and stronger, it seems to be acting more and more like a bully," McCain said.

McCain's remarks in Australia comes days before delegates from the US and China are scheduled to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue or the 16th Asia Security Summit in Singapore.

The US senator noted that Australia has become entangled in a strategic competition between America and China.

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The senator, however, did not directly urge Sydney to take part in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

"I would not try to tell the Australians what they need to do, but there are exercises where a number of nations join together — we call it RIMPAC [Rim of the Pacific Exercise]— that the Australians participate in. They're broad naval exercises," McCain said.

Hosted by the US Navy's Pacific Fleet, the RIMPAC is the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise.

Countries that participated in maritime exercises last year were Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, China, Peru, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the US.

McCain added that the joint naval exercises would be an opportunity to exercise freedom of navigation.

"But I also wanna emphasize I understand the importance of trade with China and Australia. I understand the importance of their relationship," the American senator said.

Washington recently launched its first freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea under the Trump administration.

Irking Beijing, a US Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of China's artificial islands in the Spratly Islands.

Mischief or Panganiban Reef, also being claimed by the Philippines, is included in the ruling of a United Nations-backed tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands.

The tribunal considered Mischief Reef as a low-tide elevation, which gives no entitlement to any exclusive maritime zone under international law.

RELATED: Analyst: US South China Sea operation a sign of support to Philippines

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