US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has openly criticised China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea, asking for an “immediate and lasting halt” to its land reclamation activities on Saturday.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual security gathering, Carter addressed top defense officials and experts from across the Asia Pacific and said China’s island building in the South China Sea was undermining security in the region, adding that he wants the “peaceful resolution of all disputes.”
Carter acknowledged that other countries with claims to the South China Sea had also built outposts in the Spratly Islands, but that their activity paled in comparison to the scope of Chinese involvement in the area.
“China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined … and China did so only in the last 18 months,” Carter said, adding “It’s unclear how much farther China will go. That is why this stretch of water has become the source of tension in the region and front-page news around the world.”
Carter expressed concern about the scale of China’s land reclamation and the possibility of further militarisation of the islands, warning that it would increase “the risk of miscalculation or conflict.”
“Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” he said.
Senior Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo, deputy director of the Center of China-America Defense Relations at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, challenged Carter.
Calling China’s actions “reasonable and justified,” he questioned whether the US’ criticism of China will “help to resolve disputes” and maintain peace and stability in the region.
Carter said that the US presence will be a mainstay in the region, affirming “The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”
On Friday, the US military confirmed they had known for a few weeks that China had artillery on one of the artificial islands on the South China Sea.
China downplayed the news and repeated its claim to the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Nansha Islands.
“It needs to be emphasised that the Nansha Islands is China’s territory, and China has every right to deploy on relevant islands and reefs necessary facilities for military defense,” China’s Washington embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said, before adding “However, the facilities on relevant islands and reefs are primarily for civilian purposes.”
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday she was “not aware of [Chinese military presence on Spratly Islands]” and called on the US to “stop making any provocative remarks,” saying that not only are such remarks unhelpful with respect to resolving the controversies in the South China sea, but they will also “aggravate regional peace and stability.”