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US Asserts Right to South China Sea Presence

FILE - An aerial view of one of the structures built by China at the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, Spratly Islands in South China Sea.

In an apparent rebuff to China, Defense Secretary Ash Carter repeated his assertion that the U.S. will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

He commented in a Tuesday news conference, adding that the South China Sea is not and would not be an exception to that policy.

On Friday, China sent a warning against engaging in “provocative behavior” in the South China Sea that appeared to be directed at the United States.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing would “never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands.”

China’s warning followed news reports that the U.S. is considering sailing warships near a nautical zone around artificial islands that China claims as its territory.

Asked about the reports on Tuesday, Carter declined to confirm or deny U.S. intentions, saying only that the “uncertainty and excessive military activity in the South China Sea is having the effect of increasing our maritime cooperation with many countries in the region.”

He said regional powers were seeking more “interaction” with the U.S. and the U.S. navy, and that U.S. officials are “committed to meeting that demand.”

Overlapping claims fuel tensions

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, but China has the most extensive claims in the busy and resource-rich waterway.

Also, Beijing has constructed a string of artificial islands and recently completed two airstrips on islands that are capable of handling military planes.

While the U.S. is not a claimant, it has urged all of the parties involved in the dispute to halt reclamation and any militarization of features.

Carter commented as he and Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up consultations with their Australian counterparts on a wide range of issues.

Australia 'on same page'

In a joint statement following the Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) talks, the two sides expressed “strong concerns” over China’s recent land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea and urged all of the parties involved to pursue claims in accordance with international law.

“It does not matter how big a country, the principle is clear,” said Secretary Kerry. “The rights of all nations are supposed to be respected with respect to maritime law.”

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her country is on the “same page” with the U.S. when it comes to the disputed region, urging claimants not to act “unilaterally” or in a way that would escalate tensions.