WASHINGTON — US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is set to embark on a swing through Asia, days after the newest wave of tensions between US and Chinese naval forces began to rise.
Carter's trip, which has been planned for some time, will take him through South Korea and Malaysia before returning to the US. The visits coincide with a number of major conferences, including the 47th Security Consultative Meeting between the US and Republic of Korea held in Seoul and the ASEAN Conference in Kuala Lampur.
His trip will loop back through California in time for the Reagan National Defense Forum on Nov. 7 near Los Angeles, where he will be the keynote speaker.
The trip also comes amid another round of exchanges by the US and China in the South China Sea.
On Monday, the US sent the destroyer Lassen within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China on a reef in the South China Sea's Spratly Islands. The artificial island is one of at least seven construction projects intended to cement Chinese sovereignty claims in waters where several nations have territorial disputes. The US contends that its ships merely continue to navigate international waters.
The incident set off Chinese officials, who have held the incident up as proof of American aggression in the region.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Thursday the US is not challenging the sovereignty of any land claim, but instead simply operating what it calls "freedom of navigation operations."
"The operations that we conduct anywhere where we do freedom of navigation operations are consistent with the way we do them around the world," Davis said. "They are conducted on a regular basis. They are not a challenge of sovereignty features."
The issue of the Spratly Islands is one that has dogged Carter's time as Secretary of D defense secretary, and one that does not appear likely to cool anytime soon.
On his last major swing through Asia, Carter used the Shangri-La dialogue to challenge China on the issue of the artificial islands, saying the nation was "out of step" with the rest of the Pacific. That rhetoric has largely continues whenever the issue of the Spratly buildup, unprecedented in size for the region, has been raised.