The U.S. defense secretary delivered a blunt rebuke to China for being “out of step” with international norms amid its unprecedented pace of reclamation efforts in the disputed South China Sea, saying “it is unclear how much farther China will go.”
The actions are increasing “the risk of miscalculation and conflict,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in a speech Saturday in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Carter noted China has reclaimed over 800 hectares, more than all other claimants combined and has done so in only the last 18 months.
“There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features,” he said. “We all know there is no military solution to the South China Sea disputes.”
Disputed reefs, shoals
The defense secretary also made it clear the United States would not recognize any Chinese attempt to assert a 22-kilometer territorial sea limit around disputed islands, reefs and shoals.
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all around the world,” Carter said.
“After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” he added.
Earlier this month, China’s military ordered a U.S. Navy surveillance plane to leave the Spratly Islands area, but the aircraft ignored the demand.
A senior Chinese military official in the audience Saturday at the annual security dialogue took advantage of the subsequent question-and-answer session with Carter to declare that his remarks, were “groundless and not constructive.”
"The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not at all an issue because the freedom has never been affected," said Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of China's Academy of Military Science. "It is wrong to criticize China for affecting peace and stability through construction activities."
In his speech, Carter also announced a new $425 million regional maritime initiative to assist Southeast Asian nations in improving their naval and coast guard capabilities.
At a news conference on site following Carter’s speech, a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation touring the region backed up the defense secretary.
“We believe that what Secretary Carter said today was very important. Now we want to see it translated into action. I do,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
“Our country is not going to back off,” added Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from the state of Hawaii, where the U.S. Pacific Command is headquartered.
The Shangri-La Dialogue is taking place just days after the release of an assertive Chinese defense white paper.
Analysts have interpreted the Chinese document, which was issued Tuesday, as a strong warning to Beijing’s Asian neighbors and to Washington about “busy meddling” by the U.S. military in the South China Sea, where China is intensively building islands.
U.S. Defense Department officials confirmed Friday that American surveillance imagery recently detected Chinese military weapons on one of the artificial islands built by China in the Spratly archipelago.
Although posing no military threat to U.S. ships or planes in the area, the motorized artillery pieces were reported to be within range of an island claimed by Vietnam, on which it has deployed various weaponry for some time.
China’s senior colonel Zhao, speaking on a subsequent panel Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, sought to characterize his country as being a victim, rather than a instigator of bullying at sea in recent years, contending forces of Vietnam and the Philippines have provoked incidents to prod Beijing into a fight.
In a separate session the defense minister of Japan, which has a separate territorial dispute with the Chinese in the East China Sea, called on Beijing “to behave as a responsible power” and not stand in the way of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
China should “walk the walk, not talk the talk,” said Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong, in a speech Friday evening in front of the more than two dozen defense chiefs, called on China and ASEAN members “to break the vicious cycle” by adhering to international law and concluding a Code of Conduct.
The delegates also heard from the new chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, whose area of responsibility encompasses half of the Earth’s surface.
'Great Wall of Sand'
He has raised Chinese hackles by referring to China’s vast reclamation projects at sea as a “Great Wall of Sand” – a reference to the wall that guarded the ancient Chinese empire’s frontier.
“I don’t think I was overreacting,” the admiral responded to a Chinese delegate’s query about his use of the term.
Despite the sometimes blunt verbal exchanges amid rising maritime tension in the region, veteran participants at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue characterized the tone as less hostile than in previous years.
Analyst Daniel Pinkston, based in Seoul with the International Crisis Group, told VOA that both the Chinese and Americans could be accused of hypocrisy.
China, Pinkston noted, has touted a peaceful rise as benefiting its neighbors but “now it’s trying to extend territorial claims and that turns the relationship into a zero sum game.”
And the United States, he said, demands China abide by international laws in its maritime behavior although Washington itself has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.