SINGAPORE -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned China that it is isolating itself with its actions in the South China Sea. Carter was speaking Saturday morning at the 15th Asia Security Summit being held here.
If it continues along the same course, Carter said, "China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation."
Criticizing China by name, Carter said its "expansive and unprecedented" actions in the South China Sea have "generated concerns about China's strategic intentions."
The forum, also known as The Shangri-La Dialogue, is organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The South China Sea conflict has been a focus at the forum for a few years now.
Speaking to reporters immediately after Carter's speech, Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the joint staff department of China's Central Military Commission, rebutted the American's view, saying, "China is not isolated." In fact, since Friday, Sun has been seen holding one-on-one talks with Russia, Australia and Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia.
China has been building islands in the shallow waters of the South China Sea, putting runways on top of them and deploying missiles. Tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam -- which claim sovereignty over groups of nearby islets and dispute parts of China's claims in the area -- are heating up.
Besides China's aggressive moves along an important shipping lane, forum participants also focused on North Korea's nuclear and missile provocations. In his speech, Carter said these matters "pose challenges to the region's stability and prosperity."
The Philippines has unilaterally brought its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. A ruling is expected this month. During a question-and-answer session, Carter called the case "a great opportunity" to share respect for the principle of international law.
China refuses to participate in the case.
Responding to a comment by Professor Jia Qingguo of Peking University that China is not the only country to have built up islands in South China Sea, Carter said "the reason people are focusing on China this year is because China is doing by far and away more of this kind of reclamation and militarization than any other party."
In his speech, Carter reiterated the U.S.'s long-held stance regarding freedom of navigation. "The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," he said, "so that everyone in this region can do the same."
Still, parts of Asia worry that Washington's increasing budget woes may end up throttling U.S. engagement in the region. Carter, however, reaffirmed that President Barack Obama's "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region is "enduring" and "not transient."
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said he is "deeply concerned" over "unilateral attempts to alter the status quo and consolidate such changes as a fait accompli." He did not mention any country by name. "This considerably deviates from the maritime order based on the principles of international law," he continued.
He also said that "no country can be an outsider on this issue," essentially rebutting China's position that the South China Sea issue should be dealt with bilaterally by the countries concerned.
Meanwhile, Carter's words invited a strong rebuttal from a senior Chinese defense official. "The U.S. should reduce its large-scale military exercises in the region, with particular targets or places," said Guan Youfei, chief of the Office of International Military Cooperation, part of the Ministry of National Defense.
This would "help to ease tensions and boost stability in the region," he continued in his remarks to reporters. "China complies strictly with universally recognized international principles and international laws," while the U.S. "sometimes does not do well in this regard."
As for the "self isolation" warning, Guan called it "a self-fabricated concept" by the U.S. "China," he said, "has already been deeply integrated into the international community."
Meeting separately, Nakatani and Carter discussed the alleged rape and murder of a Japanese woman by a U.S. citizen who worked at a U.S. military base in Japan's Okinawa Prefecture. The two agreed to cooperate in preventing such a crime from recurring. They also agreed to oppose unilateral attempts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea and East China Sea, implying those being undertaken by China.