OSAN AIR BASE (South Korea) • Disputes over territory in the South China Sea are causing countries in the region to step up their demand for an American security presence, the US defence chief said.
"The attention to disputed claims in the South China Sea, the prominence of those disputes, is having the effect of causing many countries in the region to want to intensify their security cooperation with the United States," US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters yesterday on his way to South Korea.
He said discussions at an upcoming defence summit in Malaysia would include developments in the South China Sea, "the most notable of which in the last year has been the unprecedented rate of dredging and military activity by China".
USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China's man-made islands in the contested Spratly archipelago last Tuesday, in the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits Beijing claims around the archipelago.
The move triggered an angry rebuke from Beijing and a warning that a minor incident in the area, which is one of the world's busiest sea lanes, could spark a conflict if the US does not stop what it called "provocative acts".
Mr Carter's visit to South Korea was his first international stop on an eight-day trip mainly focused on the Asia-Pacific. He will meet leaders from more than a dozen nations across East and South Asia.
Officially, his mission is intended to help push the next phase of America's foreign policy "rebalance" to the strategically important region. But a central theme is likely to be China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and its claims of sovereignty over almost the entire waterway.
Yesterday, Mr Carter visited the Demilitarised Zone dividing the Korean peninsula and renewed calls for North Korea to avoid provocations and step away from its nuclear programme.
On a brief trip to the heavily mined area that for 60 years has been a buffer between the two Koreas, Mr Carter and South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo stood atop a hill known as Observation Post Ouellette - the closest post to the demarcation line between the two nations.
Mr Carter later said the US remains committed to the six-party talks process that seeks the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
"That remains our policy," he told reporters. "We remain committed to achieving that negotiated outcome with North Korea, and believe that they should be on the path of doing less - and ultimately zero - in the nuclear field, not to be doing more."
North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests and has explicitly indicated its intention to carry out a fourth. It abandoned the six-party talks, which also included South Korea, China, Russia, the US and Japan, in April 2009.
Mr Carter also went to the nearby Joint Security Area, where soldiers from either side of the border stand facing each other only metres apart. "The ever-present danger is the reason why we speak of the ability to 'fight tonight' - that's the slogan up here," he said.
Later yesterday, Mr Carter was to attend a US-South Korea security meeting in Seoul. He leaves today for an Asean defence ministers' meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE