US demands immediate halt to South China Sea reclamations

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivers his speech about "The United States and Challenges to Asia-Pacific Security" during the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, or IISS, Asia Security Summit, Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Singapore.

SINGAPORE  – The United States on Saturday called for an “immediate and lasting halt” to reclamation works in disputed waters in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), saying China’s behavior in the area was “out of step” with international norms.

“First, we want a peaceful resolution of all disputes. To that end, there should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants,” US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a high-level security conference in Singapore.

“We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features,” he said, stressing that US forces would continue entering what he called “international waters” in the South China Sea.

Carter added that “with its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both the international rules and norms”.

He acknowledged that other claimants have developed outposts of differing scope and degree, including Vietnam with 48 outposts, the Philippines with eight, Malaysia with five and Taiwan with one.

“Yet, one country has gone much farther and much faster than any other.

“And that’s China. China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months,” Carter said.

“It is 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’s comments came as defense officials revealed that China had put two large artillery vehicles on one of the artificial islands it is creating in the South China Sea. The discovery, made at least several weeks ago, fuels fears in the U.S and across the Asia-Pacific that China will try to use the land reclamation projects for military purposes.

The weaponry was discovered at least several weeks ago, and two US officials who are familiar with intelligence about the vehicles say they have been removed. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the intelligence and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon would not release any photos to support its contention that the vehicles were there.

China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States, even as President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas, such as climate change.

Pentagon spokesman Brent Colburn said the US was aware of the artillery, but he declined to provide other details. Defense officials described the weapons as self-propelled artillery vehicles and said they posed no threat to the US or American territories.

While Carter did not refer directly to the weapons in his speech, he told the audience that now is the time for a diplomatic solution to the territorial disputes because “we all know there is no military solution.”

“Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” Carter told the audience at the International Institute for Strategic Studies summit.

China’s actions have been “reasonable and justified,” said Senior Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo, deputy director of the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science.

Zhao challenged Carter, asking whether America’s criticism of China and its military reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea “help to resolve the disputes” and maintain peace and stability in the region.

Carter responded that China’s expanding land reclamation projects are unprecedented in scale. He said the US has been flying and operating ships in the region for decades and has no intention of stopping.

Asked about images of weapons on the islands, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was “not aware of the situation you mention.”

She also scolded Carter, saying the US should be “rational and calm and stop making any provocative remarks, because such remarks not only do not help ease the controversies in the South China Sea, but they also will aggravate the regional peace and stability.”

Carter appeared to strike back in his speech, saying that the US is concerned about “the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict.” And he said the US “has every right to be involved and be concerned.”

But while Carter stood in China’s backyard and added to the persistent drumbeat of US opposition to Beijing’s activities, he did little to give Asia-Pacific nations a glimpse into what America is willing to do to achieve a solution.

He said the US will continue to sail, fly and operate in the region, and warned that the Pentagon will be sending its “best platforms and people” to the Asia-Pacific. Those would include, he said, new high-tech submarines, surveillance aircraft, the stealth destroyer and new aircraft carrier-based early-warning aircraft.

But he said little about how to solve the stand-off with China, other than calling for diplomatic talks and peaceful resolutions.

One senior defense official has said the US is considering more military flights and patrols closer to the projects in the South China Sea, to emphasize reclaimed lands are not China’s territorial waters. Officials also are looking at ways to adjust the military exercises in the region to increase US presence if needed. That official was not authorized to discuss the options publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

One possibility would be for US ships to travel within 12 miles of the artificial islands, to further make the point that they are not sovereign Chinese land.

The US has been flying surveillance aircraft in the region, prompting China to file a formal protest.

US and other regional officials have expressed concerns about the island building, including worries that it may be a prelude to navigation restrictions or the enforcement of a possible air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. China declared such a zone over disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea in 2013.

Last June, the US called for a freeze on construction work in disputed areas, but Beijing only increased its land reclamation. In recent months, commercial satellite imagery has put a spotlight on the rapid expansion of artificial islands.

China has said the islands are its territory and that the buildings and other infrastructure are for public service use and to support fishermen.