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.
And while the Pentagon is laying out the trip as the next step in the so-called rebalance to the Pacific, Carter's travels are being watched closely by Chinese officials who have officials in China, which has been expanding its regional dominance in recent years.
The trip occurs amid rising tensions between China and other nations in the region, including the US, over Chinese operations to create new islands in the South China Sea.
China has claimed those lands as part of its territory, which the Pentagon estimates to be about 2,000 acres in size, as part of its territory, a move neighboring nations believe is a power grab to increase its control of the region. Some 1,500 of those acres have been developed since January, showing the rapid acceleration of China's activities.
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."
The latter was the most forceful comments Carter has made about China's claims of sovereignty in the region. He noted that China's disrespect for "international norms" is leading other nations in the Pacific to turn toward the US as an alternative.
"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."
The Chinese government, unsurprisingly, views things differently. Wang Dong, executive director at Peking University's Institute on China-US People to People Exchange, called articulated that viewpoint when calling Carter's statement "typical bluffing actions."
"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.
In the wake of China's actions, it is hard to ignore how the US has reached out and strengthened partnerships in the region. In roughly a year, the US has struck reached new agreements with India, Australia, Japan and the Philippines, while also evolving its relationship with Vietnam. And while those agreements are of varying significance, they add up to a paper trail showing the US strategy in the Pacific.
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 highlight of the Asian trip was the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defense leaders from the region hosted by the International Institute of Security Studies, held May 29-31 in Singapore. Carter will continued his call for building regional capabilities in that a May 30 speech there. (Carter's speech occurred after publication deadlines.)
Before the dialogue, Carter will take took part in bilateral discussions with Singaporean officials, including meeting with Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen. Carter did not have any planned meetings with Chinese officials while at the Dialogue, although it is possible informal communications occurred behind closed doors. When asked why no such meetings were scheduled, DoD officials pointed to the multiple lines of communication between the US and China that occur on a regular basis.
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."
Asked specifically what options the US is weighing in the region, the senior defense official demurred. to comment. "The Defense Department is an option-producing institution," the official said. "I'm not going to talk about any particular actions we're going to take in the future."
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."
"Carter seems to hope that the US can hit on a military response that is strong enough to compel China to back off, but not so strong that it provokes a Chinese counter-response," White said. "Alas, there is almost certainly no such option available. China will either ignore what the US does by way of overflights, in which case the US ends up looking weak. Or China will hit back at the US, in which case Carter and Obama face an appalling choice between backing off themselves or escalating in turn."
"That," White noted, "is how wars start."
Wendell Minnick in Singapore contributed to this report.