U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says that China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is “out of step with international rules” and that the United States opposes “any further militarization” of the disputed lands.
The U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the scale of China’s island building and the prospect of further militarization of theses artificial islands as it is undermining security in the Asia-Pacific and is increasing “the risk of miscalculation or conflict,” Carter told top defense officials from across the Asia-Pacific on Saturday during the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum.
Carter called for a diplomatic resolution on the rival territorial claims in the South China Sea, saying China and its neighbors should agree on a long-delayed code of conduct for the waters before the end of the year.
“There is no military solution to the South China Sea disputes,” Carter said. “Right now, at this critical juncture, is the time for renewed diplomacy, focused on finding a lasting solution that protects the rights and interests of all.”
China and some Asian nations have used dredging to expand reefs and shoals in the disputed South China Sea, a resource-rich stretch of ocean crossed by vital shipping lanes.
Carter acknowledged the fact that several countries had created outposts in the region’s disputed islands, however he said that the scope of China’s activity created uncertainty about its future plans.
China has created 2,000 acres of new land over the past 18 months, in some cases hundreds of miles from its mainland, he said.
“China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined … and China did so in only the last 18 months,” Carter said. “It is unclear how much farther China will go.”
In the Spratly Islands — a collection of over 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays, and islands in the disputed South China Sea — Vietnam has 48 outposts, the Philippines has 8, Malaysia has 5, and Taiwan has 1, according to Bloomberg.
“One country has gone much further and much faster than any other,” Carter said. “And that’s China.”
Island-building elevates the risk of conflict in the fast-growing region, Carter said, adding that the U.S. had “deep concerns about any party that attempts to undermine the status quo and generate instability there, whether by force, coercion, or simply by creating irreversible facts on the ground, in the air, or in the water.”
Carter repeated his call for an “immediate halt” to additional island-building and militarization of existing formations.
Carter also pushed back at China’s claims that the reclaimed reefs represent national territory, stating: “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”
A Chinese military delegate to the Forum, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiazhuo of China’s Academy of Military Science, said that the remarks were “uncalled for.”
Two weeks ago, the Pentagon said that it was considering sending U.S. military aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea to assert “freedom of navigation”.
Beijing responded shortly thereafter, via an editorial in the state-owned Global Times, which warned of the possibility of war if the U.S. does not back down. “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea … The intensity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually think of as ‘friction’.”
On May 28, a Pentagon spokesman said that the U.S. had recently detected two mobile artillery vehicles on one of China’s reclaimed reefs in the Spratlys.
Last week, the Chinese navy issued eight warnings to a U.S. P8-A Poseidon, the U.S. military’s most advanced surveillance aircraft, when it was conducting overflights with a CNN news crew in airspace above artificial islands that China is creating in the disputed South China Sea.
The senior U.S. diplomat for the East Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, told reporters the following day that the U.S. flight was “entirely appropriate” and that U.S. naval forces and military aircraft would “continue to fully exercise” the right to operate in international waters and airspace.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the U.S. Navy from operating – that would not be a good bet,” Russel added.
China issued a formal protest to the U.S. on Monday stating that the U.S.’s actions were “utterly dangerous and irresponsible” and “highly likely to cause miscalculation and untoward incidents in the waters and airspace.”
Speaking in Hawaii on Wednesday during a change-of-command ceremony at U.S. Pacific Command, Carter bluntly declared: “And there should be no mistake: The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”
Indeed, tensions between China and the U.S. are heating up to new levels, and should differences not be resolved peacefully and diplomatically, could one day lead to the unthinkable.