SINGAPORE -- U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Saturday laid out a plan to strengthen defense cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. The plan, a $425 million initiative to help regional militaries beef up their maritime defenses, comes in response to China's provocations in the South China Sea.
Calling for "an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation," Carter stressed that China's island-building has concerned numerous nations, not only the U.S.
Carter was speaking Saturday morning at an annual Asia security conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore. He used the occasion to remark on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China appears to be bullying the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Carter emphasized that the call to halt reclamation work applies to all claimants, but he expressed deep concern over China's pace and scope of enlarging reefs and islets. "One country has gone much farther and much faster than any other," Carter said. "And that's China."
He called China's reclamation of 2,000 acres in only 18 months "unprecedented."
Carter underlined America's determination to stand for freedom of navigation and rule of law. "The United States," he said, "will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all around the world." He also said "turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit."
He urged China and ASEAN members to sign a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea "this year" to ease tensions and build trust.
Through the new Southeast Asia Security Initiative, the U.S. Defense Department is proposing that it help to equip and step up the defense capabilities of Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, particularly in maritime matters. He also talked of a number of other regional efforts, such as providing support to the Vietnamese coast guard and helping the Philippines build an improved maritime monitoring system.
After the speech, while fielding questions, Carter said that if China continues, "one of the consequences will be continued coalescing of concerned nations around the region and around the world."
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani echoed Carter. "It is deeply regrettable" that the vast land reclamation and construction of sea ports and airstrips are being conducted at a rapid pace in the disputed area, he said. "I expect all countries, including China, to behave as responsible powers."
Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief, general staff department of the People's Liberation Army, is to present what is likely to be China's rebuttal Sunday morning. During the question and answer period following Carter's speech, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, referred to the U.S. criticism as "groundless and nonconstructive."