U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Saturday that the United States and everyone else in the Asia-Pacific region is "deeply concerned" about the risk of conflict between those making claims in the South China Sea.
Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum near Los Angeles, Carter said the pace and scope of land reclamation by China and others increase the risk of miscalculation and ought to stop.
A Chinese destroyer trailed a U.S. warship last month as it came within 11 kilometers of an artificial island China is building in the South China Sea. China has territorial claims in nearly the entire body of water. Several other countries are also making claims.
Someone asked Carter Saturday whether "a bunch of rocks on the other side of the world" was worth a showdown with China.
Carter replied that the point of the U.S. warship's mission was freedom of navigation in international waters that are a trillion-dollar global trade route. He said this freedom was critical and that the U.S. needed to stick up for it.
But Carter said the American security rebalance in the Pacific was not aimed at holding any nation back.
"The United States wants every nation to have the opportunity to rise because it's good for the region and good for all our countries. That includes China ... but it must uphold President Xi [Jinping]'s pledge not to 'pursue militarization' in the South China Sea."
Carter said he had accepted Xi's invitation to visit China next year. He said they would surely discuss differences as well as talk about the many ways to cooperate on such vital matters as global warming, piracy and humanitarian disasters.