US defense chief Ash Carter says China’s island-building erodes security

Reuters — May 30, 2015

USS Fort Worth on patrol near the Spratly Islands. Click to enlarge

USS Fort Worth on patrol near the Spratly Islands. Click to enlarge

The US defense secretary, Ash Carter, has warned Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea was undermining security in the Asia Pacific and he called for a diplomatic push to solve the territorial dispute that is driving China’s effort.

The Japanese government has also warned such projects risk plunging the region into disorder.

Carter, speaking to top defense officials from across the Asia Pacific on Saturday, acknowledged that several countries had created outposts in the region’s disputed islands, but he said the scope of China’s activity created uncertainty about its future plans.

“China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined … and China did so in only the last 18 months,” Carter told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in remarks prepared for delivery. “It is unclear how much farther China will go.”

He said the US was “deeply concerned” about the scale of China’s land reclamation and the prospect of further militarization of the islands, saying it would boost “the risk of miscalculation or conflict”.

The previous day, the Pentagon had confirmed reports that China had put mobile artillery at one of its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, a move that Republican senator John McCain said was “disturbing and escalatory”.

Carter is currently on an 11-day trip to Asia, his second since becoming the US defense secretary earlier this year. With an eye on Chinese activity in the South China Sea, he has made maritime security a theme of his travels.

In a speech at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, he called for an immediate end to land reclamation by all parties claiming parts or all of the South China Sea and a halt to militarization of the islands.

Carter said competing claims of sovereignty over the resource-rich islands of the South China Sea could not be solved militarily, and he insisted US forces would continue to “fly, sail and operate” in the region to ensure the freedom of navigation and overflight permitted by law.

“America, alongside its allies and partners … will not be deterred from exercising these rights,” Carter said. “Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”

Carter, who flew over the busy Strait of Malacca near Singapore in a V-22 Osprey on Friday, said activities like those in the South China Sea eroded confidence in the region’s unique security structure, which had enabled decades of stability and rising prosperity in Asia.

Some 50,000 ships a year pass through the strait, the shortest route between the Middle East and East Asia. It is a vital energy shipping channel, carrying more than 15m barrels of oil a day, including 80% of Chinese and Japanese supplies.

The Pentagon chief called for a renewed diplomatic effort to resolve the competing sovereignty claims to the resource-rich islands, with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) taking a lead because of its central role in the region’s security architecture.

“Right now, at this critical juncture, is the time for renewed diplomacy, focused on a finding a lasting solution that protects the rights and interests of all,” Carter said.

Japan’s minister of defense warned land reclamation projects in the South China Sea risked plunging the region into disorder and urged nations, including China, to behave responsibly.

“If we leave any unlawful situation unattended, order will soon turn to disorder, and peace and stability will collapse,” Gen Nakatani said during a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

“I hope and expect all the countries, including China, to behave as a responsible power,” he said.