The United States welcomes China's participation in a "principled security network" for Asia, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said yesterday, as he stressed the US' commitment to the region.
Such a network is inclusive and countries can contribute to it regardless of size, military might, budget or experience, he said.
This will allow for better coordination to manage humanitarian crises and meet challenges such as terrorism - on top of ensuring the security of, and access to, resources such as vital waterways, he told delegates at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue security forum yesterday.
"The US is fully committed to this principled security network and to the Asia-Pacific's principled future. That's because this region... remains the most consequential for America's own security and prosperity," he said.
"Regardless of what else was going on at home or in other parts of the world - during Democratic and Republican administrations, in times of surplus and deficit, war and peace - the US has remained economically, politically and militarily engaged, as well as geographically located in the Asia-Pacific."
Why China is in the spotlight
Exchange between Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, and US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter at the Shangri-La Dialogue during the question-and-answer segment of Dr Carter's speech: Prof Jia: I think the dispute between China and the US over the South China Sea has been overblown. It is only part of the relationship between our two countries which is huge, vast and complicated. This issue probably should be put into proper perspective.
Secondly, I think the artificial islands - China's practice is not an exception, I think a lot of countries have engaged in this kind of practice, including Vietnam, the Philippines, even Japan and South Korea. So why focus on China?
Also, both China and the US are committed to this principle (of freedom of navigation in the high seas). However, there is one difference, that is, China believes that this does not give other countries the right to (sail and fly) military ships and aircraft close to other countries' coasts even though it's in the high seas. But the US believes that it is important to maintain this right... My question is why does the US attach so much importance to the right to send ships and aircraft to conduct activities near other countries' coasts? Dr Carter: What we stand for is the principle of rule of law and abiding by international law in the commons, which means freedom of navigation in the sea and in the air. It's not a focus on China, it is a focus on principle.
The reason that people are focusing on China this year is because China is doing by far and away more of this kind of reclamation and militarisation than any other party... It's China's actions that are causing the attention, but the attention is occasioned by a concern of the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes, non-coercion and freedom of navigation, which are important principles to everyone in the region.
I'd say that from a global perspective, from a regional perspective and a principle perspective, these actions by anyone, and especially by China in the last couple of years, are destabilising and self-isolating, which is regrettable since our vision, the American vision of security for this region, as I indicated, is one of (an) inclusive security network.
And given the rise of China, the US "expects and welcomes a China that plays a responsible role in world affairs commensurate with its wealth and potential influence".
This is why the US has "consistently encouraged China to take actions that uphold - and do not undercut - shared principles".
Dr Carter used the word "principled" at least 38 times during the hour-long session to stress his point, and said the US wants to expand its military agreements with China so as to focus "not only on risk reduction, but also on practical cooperation".
He noted the longstanding military relationship between the two major powers, under which two exercises - on maritime rules of behaviour and on crisis communications - were completed recently.
On top of that, China will also be sending five ships to join the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific naval exercise this year, he noted.
Under these "principled security networks", every country will be "free to make its own political, economic and military choices, free from coercion and intimidation". And underpinning this freedom would be the peaceful resolution of disputes and a respect for the freedoms of navigation and overflight as guaranteed by international norms.
Mr Timothy Heath, senior international defence research analyst at US-based think-tank Rand Corporation, told The Sunday Times that China will likely respond to such calls to abide by international rules and norms by agreeing to support them. But he added that China will likely argue that these rules "need to be reformed to reflect the reality of Chinese power and preferences".