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Pentagon chief postpones visit to China as tensions simmer in South China Sea

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter at a news conference in Washington last year. He will not visit China in his upcoming trip to Asia. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter will embark on a trip in coming days that will focus heavily on China’s influence across Southeast Asia, including the disputed South China Sea. But the secretary’s travel itinerary won’t include a key player in that discussion: China itself.

The trip will include visits to India and the Philippines before Carter pivots to the Middle East with stops in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement Friday. The Pentagon has sought to strengthen relationships with India and the Philippines as China expands its military and puts a variety of new equipment and weapons in the South China Sea, including surface-to-air missiles and advanced radar.

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Carter accepted in November an invitation to visit China after he met with the country’s defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, during a meeting in Malaysia. U.S. defense officials said at the time that the two senior defense officials agreed to work out details for a visit this spring, but when the Pentagon released details about the trip Friday, China was not included.

Cook said Friday that Carter still expects to visit China later this year. The secretary’s “complicated schedule did not allow for it to take place during this trip,” he said. The Wall Street Journal first reported the decision Friday, and U.S. officials said they informed Beijing in the past few weeks that Carter would not be visiting.

China has laid claim to a number of islands in the South China Sea, building airbases on tiny spits of land while installing radar and missile launchers. (Video: Jason Aldag, Julie Vitkovskaya/The Washington Post / Satellite photos courtesy of CSIS)

Carter discussed his trip Friday during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, saying — as he often does — that the Asia-Pacific region is the most consequential region to America’s future. While the United States and China have disagreements over some issues, they are continuing to work through those, he said.

“This is a region that has had it good for 70 years, and this would be a serious mistake for all of us to allow that to unravel,” he said in response to a question. “And for militarization to lead to tension, to lead to conflict. So, we’re trying to prevent that.”

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