SINGAPORE – US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter delivered a message balancing warning and conciliation to China on Saturday (June 4), urging Beijing to join a "principled security network" in the Asia-Pacific region and stop erecting a "Great Wall of self-isolation" in the South China Sea.
"This Asia-Pacific security network is more than some extension of existing alliances...more importantly, this is a principled security network," said Mr Carter in his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit.
"The United States welcomes the emergence of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China that plays a responsible role in the region’s principled security network.
"Unfortunately, there is growing anxiety in this region, and in this room, about China’s activities on the seas, in cyberspace, and in the region’s airspace...If these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation," Mr Carter told 600 defence ministers, scholars and business executives at the three-day forum organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
China claims some 80 per cent of the South China Sea, which hosts a vital global shipping route, and has been conducting reclamation works on reefs in the waterway, putting it in direct conflict with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei which have overlapping claims.
Manila has taken China's claim to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. The verdict is expected to be out some time in June - but Beijing has said it will not recognised the ruling.
Mr Carter signalled that the US will stand with the Philippines, its long-time ally, as well as Vietnam, with which Washington is reestablishing ties 40 years after the Vietnam War, to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
The US military has conducted several “freedom of navigation” operations in which the a ship or plane passed by a Chinese-claimed island in the South China Sea, much to Beijing's displeasure.
Mr Carter warned that the US and other countries in the region will take "actions" should China build an outpost on Scarborough Shoal. China reportedly plans to establish an outpost on the shoal, located 230km off the Philippines, which Beijing seized in 2012.
“I hope that this development doesn’t occur because it will result in actions being taken both by the United States, and actions being taken by others in the region that will have the effect of not only increasing tensions but isolating
China,” the Pentagon chief said when asked about Scarborough Shoal in the Q&A session after his speech.
Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, who heads the Chinese office of international military cooperation, quickly attacked Mr Carter’s remarks, telling journalists they reflected a “Cold War mentality”, Agence France-Presse reported.
Territorial disputes aside, Mr Carter insisted that the US will be in Asia for the long haul, in comments seen as an attempt to counter some concerns in Asia about US' policy on the region after President Barack Obama steps down.
"The United States will remain the most powerful military and main underwriter of security in the region for decades to come," he said, noting that Mr Obama has travelled to Asia 10 times in eight years.
He said the US and Laos had agreed to co-host an informal meeting of Asean defence ministers in Hawaii in September to follow up on commitments made at a Asean-US summit in February that territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully and through legal means.
He also mentioned the work the US had undertaken to strengthen security ties with countries including Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia as part of the "principled security network". He used the word "principled" no fewer than 37 times.
He also cited the growing US-Singapore relationship as reflective of a "growing trend" of US engagement in the region.
"Just yesterday, I flew over the Strait of Malacca with my counterpart Minister Ng [Eng Hen] in one of the American P-8 surveillance aircraft that is now part of a rotation here.
"That rotation is one of the many examples, including Singapore’s hosting four American littoral combat ships, of how our two countries are working together to build cooperation, provide security, and respond to crises around South-east Asia."
Mr Carter also addressed the problem of nuclear-armed North Korea, which conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and regularly threatens to annihilate the US and Japan.
The US, Japan, and South Korea will conduct a trilateral ballistic missile warning exercise later this month, the Pentagon chief announced. Seoul and Washington want to deploy the US’ sophisticated Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) that would counteract North Korean missiles, but Beijing worries about any such deployment in its backyard.
Mr Carter devoted the bulk of his speech to China. Despite differences between the US and China, he said, they have a long-standing cooperative relationship, including between their militaries.
He noted that China will be back at RIMPAC or Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world's largest international maritime war games, this year.
"In fact, the United States and China plan to sail together from Guam to Hawaii for RIMPAC, conducting several
exercise events along the way, including an event to practice search-and-rescue," said Mr Carter.
"By networking security together, the United States, China, and all others in the region can continue to ensure stability and prosperity in a dynamic region."
Dr Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Bloomberg the tone of the meeting so far appeared more positive than last year's summit, when China and the US traded barbs.
“There’s a more conciliatory mood all around,” Dr Oh was quoted as saying. “You can tell there’s a willingness to engage each other diplomatically, with less saber-rattling.”