JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR, Honolulu – US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned China Wednesday that attempts to expand its influence in the South China Sea will ultimately lead to isolation for the Pacific power.
Speaking in Honolulu at the change of command for US Pacific Command, Carter reaffirmed that the US does not respect Chinese attempts to broaden their sovereign territory through the development of man-made islands in the region.
China has claimed those lands, which the Pentagon estimates to be about 2,000 acres in size, as part of its territory, a move other nations in the region believe is a power grab to increase its control of the region. About 1,500 of those acres have been developed since January, showing the rapid acceleration of China's activities.
"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.
"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 perhaps the most forceful comments Carter has made about China's claims of sovereignty in the region through the first three months of his tenure as secretary.
"China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific's security architecture, and the regional consensus in favor of non-coercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes," Carter said, later adding that the US "will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come."
Carter's trip continues with visits to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and stops in India and Vietnam. In all three spots, the secretary plans to focus on developing allied capability in the region.
"China's actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways," he said. "And they're increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We're going to meet it."
A senior defense official told reporters before the speech that the overall trip will focus 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 Pentagon has certainly viewed partner capacity building as key in the Pacific. Last month, the US and Japan launched an updated framework for its military relationship, while in recent months the Department of State changed its rules for equipment sales to Vietnam to allow the transfer of maritime patrol gear to that nation.
Carter's comments came as Adm. Harry Harris took over for retiring Adm. Samuel Locklear as the head of US Pacific Command. Flanked by a scenic view of the USS Arizona memorial, Carter praised the work Locklear did in building those relationships.
In his comments, Harris referred to China's actions in the Pacific as "preposterous."
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.