China “could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation” if it continues with provocative militarization of disputed islets in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Saturday.
Carter told Asian defense ministers, security analysts and scholars attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore there is “growing anxiety” about Chinese actions in the strategic waters and elsewhere.
Of particular concern is whether China will conduct dredging on Scarborough Shoal, 200 kilometers west of Subic Bay and also claimed by the Philippines.
Carter said such an action would be “provocative and destabilizing.”
Speaking with reporters later in the day, the U.S. defense secretary said such a move by China would prompt reactions from the United States and others.
“They will be by all countries in the region and will unfold over time as their concern grows over this kind of activity,” Carter told reporters. “Increasingly nations in the region are cooperating on maritime security among themselves and coming to the United States.”
Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA News one possible response could be Washington publicly stating that the mutual defense treaty with the Philippines is not geographically limited and thus “if Philippines’ forces or assets are attacked anywhere, the U.S. would be obligated to come to their aid.”
People’s Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, appearing at a session later in the day titled “Managing South China Sea Tensions,” criticized the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters.
The maneuvers could be interpreted as “battlefield preparations,” she said.
“I don’t think any state has the right to impose its own understanding of freedom of navigation as a universal rule and label those who do not agree as a default violator of freedom of navigation or even a violator of the rule-based international maritime order,” added Yao, who is also a senior researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science.
Incidents of China responding assertively to the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation missions in the disputed water are actually quite uncommon, according to Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Jr.
“We’ve seen positive behavior in the last several months with China," Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters. “Every now and then we’ll see an incident in the air that we may judge to be unsafe. But those are really, over the course of time, rare.”
The conference in Singapore comes just ahead of an international arbitration ruling on the Philippines’ claims against China’s maritime claims.
Beijing has already indicated it will not abide by The Hague tribunal’s findings and regards the process as illegitimate.
Carter said that stance is a mistake and that the upcoming ruling is an opportunity for China and the rest of the region to commit to a principled future.
Japan backed up that stance.
“Every judgment or decision made by related courts must be fully observed by all the claimants in accordance with the relevant international law," Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said at the conference Saturday.
Delegates from more than 50 countries are attending the annual Shangri-La Dialogue and Asia Security Summit.
Other topics being discussed include the continued provocations by North Korea and renewed regional concerns over jihadist terrorism.