UNITED States Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is demanding an immediate halt to Chinese land reclamation in disputed waters in the South China Sea, hitting back at Beijing days after it unveiled a policy document outlining plans to boost military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
Speaking at a change-of-command ceremony for the US Pacific Command on Wednesday, Mr Carter made some of the strongest remarks yet in the ongoing war of words between Beijing and Washington over China's actions in the disputed waterway.
"We want a peaceful resolution of all disputes, and an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant," he said at the Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam in Hawaii.
Mr Carter made clear that he wants the US to remain the principal military power in Asia.
"China's actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways. And they're increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific, and we're going to meet it. We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come," he said.
China yesterday accused the US of threatening to sow "chaos" in the Asia-Pacific region by inciting countries whose territorial claims in the South China Sea clash with those of Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing: "If the major powerhouse of world economic growth is thrown into chaos, will that serve the interests of the American side?"
She asked Washington to refrain from "all the provocative words and deeds".
She added: "I'd like to reiterate that the scale and speed of China's construction work is commensurate with the international obligation of China as a major country."
There has been growing concern in Washington over what it sees as aggressive land reclamation and island building by China in the contested Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over up to 90 per cent of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
This week, Beijing unveiled a military White Paper that included plans to boost the reach of its navy and shift the focus of its air force from a purely defensive stance to one that would include offence. The paper also included thinly veiled criticisms of the US for "meddling in South China Sea affairs".
Mr Carter did not directly address the White Paper in his remarks on Wednesday, but left little doubt as to the US take on Chinese military plans in Asia.
"With its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia- Pacific's security architecture, and the regional consensus in favour of a non-coercive approach to this and other longstanding disputes," he said.