U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has called for an immediate and lasting halt to China's land reclamation and the militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea, saying Beijing's claims in the disputed sea are "out of step" with international norms. Carter pledged the United States would remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come.
Speaking in Hawaii during a change-of-command ceremony at U.S. Pacific Command Wednesday, Carter called for a peaceful resolution of disputes and an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant in the South China Sea.
"We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features. Second, and there should be no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world. Finally, with its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific security architecture and the regional consensus in favor of a non-coercive approach to this and other longstanding disputes," he said.
China lodged a complaint with Washington over a U.S. spy plane that flew over the Spratly Islands last week where China is engaged in land reclamation. The Pentagon this month said China had reclaimed 800 hectares at five different sites, most of it this year.
In his remarks Wednesday, the U.S. defense chief also suggested China’s new assertiveness will not go unchallenged.
"China’s actions are bringing countries together in new ways and they’re increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. And, we’re going to meet it. We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come," he said.
Carter also met in Hawaii with his Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, and reaffirmed that the U.S. commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad. The two countries have a longstanding mutual defense treaty. Manila is pursuing international arbitration and diplomatic efforts to resolve territorial disputes with Beijing.
Regional defense analyst Ralph Cossa of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum said Carter’s remarks are nothing new and are in line with the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China committing the parties to a code of conduct aimed at peace and stability:
"This was certainly put all in one fairly blunt statement and certainly forceful coming from the Secretary of Defense, the fact that the U.S. wants everyone to stop cheating on the Declaration of Conduct of Parties. You know, in 2002, all of them agreed to not do anything to change the status quo and since then everybody has been doing things to change the status quo. So, the U.S. position has been, ‘Knock it off!’ To me, the only sensible thing to do is a roll back to 2002. That’s when everybody promised to behave and they ought to be held to that promise. And, certainly, the U.S. is essentially saying, ‘Quit changing the status quo, quit doing things that are making the situation worse,’” said Cossa.
Cossa described as refreshing Carter’s statements on the unwillingness of Iraqi security forces to stand and fight and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. He said that in both cases, his bluntness is both truthful and necessary.
East-West Institute senior fellow Denny Roy said the Carter statement is another way of saying Washington will not honor any Chinese attempt to create an economic exclusion zone (EEZ) or territorial waters boundary around any of their artificial islands. He said China will almost certainly not stop its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea and that could undermine the U.S. objective of retaining its regional leadership. Roy said it could also increase the chance of an incident involving U.S. and Chinese ships and aircraft.
The state-run China Daily on Thursday said China’s island construction work in the South China Sea is designed to provide better services for vessels. It said this will help China “better shoulder its international responsibilities in the South China Sea,” including search and rescue missions, disaster prevention and mitigation, meteorological observation, ecological conservation, navigation safety and fisheries services. It criticized Washington for failing to honor its commitment to neutrality in the South China Sea, warning that its meddling is destabilizing.
Tuesday, China released a policy white paper stating its intention to expand its military strength further from its borders, while insisting it does not want a confrontation with any of its neighbors.
Defense Secretary Carter is engaged in his second trip to the Asia-Pacific region since assuming his post in February. His 10 days in the region will take him to a regional security meeting (Shangri-La Dialogue), that will include a Chinese delegation, in Singapore, as well as stops in India and Vietnam.