Defense Secretary Ashton Carter bluntly warned China Wednesday to stop its buildup of man-made islands in the South China Sea and vowed that the U.S. military would continue to patrol international waters and airspace in the region.
Carter’s comments, made at a ceremony in Hawaii to recognize Adm. Harry B. Harris, the new commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, further escalated a simmering rhetorical conflict between Washington and Beijing over access to the South China Sea and other Asian waters.
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” Carter said at the U.S. military’s joint base at Pearl Harbor.
China asserts sovereignty over 80 percent of the resource-rich sea, which includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and has been aggressively staking its claims by building large artificial islands. The United States and its Asian allies have vigorously opposed China’s territorial moves. With no one backing down, the impasse has raised the specter of a localized military conflict.
Last week, China tried to order a U.S. Navy Poseidon P-8A surveillance aircraft to leave an area near the disputed Spratly Islands where China has been turning a reef into an artificial island. The Navy spy plane, which was carrying a CNN news crew on board, ignored multiple Chinese warnings to change its course.
China’s Foreign Ministry later blasted the U.S. military for “very irresponsible and also dangerous” actions. The Pentagon insisted the plane was flying in international airspace.
In his remarks Wednesday, Carter made clear that U.S. warships and planes would continue to patrol the region and ignore China’s attempts to extend its maritime territorial limits. He accused China of raising tensions in an area where the U.S. Navy and Air Force have operated largely unfettered since the end of World War II.
“China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus in favor of non-coercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes,” he said.
Carter’s message was equally aimed at U.S. allies and partners in Asia who have wondered how Washington would react to China’s military buildup and its attempts to exercise more influence on the region.
“China’s actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways,” Carter said. “And they’re increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We’re going to meet it. We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
Carter’s visit to Hawaii marked the start of a 10-day trip to the Pacific region. He will speak at a regional security conference in Singapore, where the U.S.-China rivalry is expected to take center stage.
The Pentagon chief is also scheduled to visit Vietnam – whose territorial claims in the South China Sea are at odds with Beijing – and India.