SINGAPORE — US Defense Secretary Ash Carter will spend the next week touring Asia, where he will focus on building up the maritime security capabilities of regional allies.
Carter began the trip with a May 27 keynote at Joint Base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where he reaffirmed that the US will not be beholden to China's claims that these new islands represent territorial holds that must be respected under international law.
"First, we want a peaceful resolution of all disputes, and an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant," Carter said in his prepared remarks. "We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features.
"Second, 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."
"China's actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways. 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."
Talking to a group of reporters traveling with him, Carter denied that the US was doing anything differently in the Pacific, instead throwing the blame for the region's changing political environment on China.
"The new facts are the reclamation and the scale on which it is being done," Carter said. "That's not an American fact. That's a Chinese fact."
"They are intended to send a signal and to communicate US resolve, a very typical move of a signaling game," Dong said. "However, the US overflight actually violates international law and infringes upon China's rights. ... Therefore, the US position is unsustainable."
Because of that clear disconnect in what is and is not international law, Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director, Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said it is important for the US to maintain communications.
"The historical issues and the disputed maritime issues could not be solved for only one time or several times of dialogue. It needs consistent and persistent efforts and, above all, sincerity," he noted.
A senior US defense official told reporters that the overall trip will be focused heavily on developing "that kind of open, inclusive, regional security architecture that we have been building and on which we will continue to build."
The senior US defense official pointed out the increasing importance of Singapore as a military partner, including plans to host four US Navy littoral combat ships there by 2018 — the first permanent presence of US naval vessels in the South China Sea since the early 1990s.
That theme of building up maritime security partnerships in the region will continue in the next two visits of the trip, first to Vietnam and later to India.
In Vietnam, Carter will visit Haiphong harbor for what he called "an unprecedented visit to both the Vietnamese Navy and Coast Guard commanders' installations and vessels in that harbor." And in India, the first stop will be the eastern port of Visag, which Carter described as key to India's Pacific strategy.
Carter indicated the Indian stop will feature a discussion of potential defense technological cooperation with the US, which he called "a big priority" for India.
Van Jackson, a Pacific expert with the Center for a New American Security, said building partner capacity in the region is important to furthering stability in the Pacific. "A common operating picture is not sexy, but it's important for countering the trend," Jackson said.
That includes increasing joint maritime patrols, more joint training, as well as making sure allies in the region are using the same gear and can communicate not just with US forces, but with each other.
"It's all for the sake of creating an environment in these high-friction areas that [is] as transparent as possible," Jackson said. "So if China is using fishing vessels or drones to press its claims, that can be seen by everyone in the region.
"Aggression is called out for being aggressive," he added. "Sunshine is the least provocative antidote, so there is good in building capacity for partners to be able to see the same things."
Focusing on maritime security capabilities of regional partners would seem to be the US way of responding to China's increasing aggressiveness, but the senior US defense official repeatedly pushed back at the idea, citing the "transparent" way American officials have communicated with their Chinese counterparts.
Still, he acknowledged US concern about China's attempts to expand its territory.
"No amount of reclamation, no amount of dredging, no amount of facilities construction on those reclaimed features can generate a legitimate territory or claim under international law," the official said.
"With regard to what we will do about it, let's look at it this way: While the Chinese are building islands, we're building trust in the region," the official added. "We are strengthening our alliances, we are building our partnerships, and over time we believe that this weight that we bring to bear on the issue will help all of the claimants, including the Chinese, achieve a just and peaceful solution of their differences."
Jackson warned against letting the current impasse stand.
"If the status quo continues for five years, it gets worse and worse to the point where we have no credibility in the region," Jackson said. "It puts us in a box where we have to capitulate to actual aggression or have a live-fire confrontation. That's where we can end up if nothing changes."
That view is shared by Hugh White, author of the new book, "The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power."
"That," White noted, "is how wars start."
Wendell Minnick in Singapore contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.