China’s island-building in the South China Sea is driving Asian nations to seek closer cooperation with the U.S., Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
The American defense chief made the comment Tuesday in response to a question -- which he didn’t answer -- about plans being weighed by the Obama administration to sail U.S. Navy ships inside the 12 nautical miles that China claims around man-made islands it created in the sea north of Australia.
“Uncertainty in the South China Sea is having the effect of increasing our interaction with other partners in the area,” Carter said at a Boston news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry and their Australian counterparts. "It’s having the effect of increasing the desire to cooperate with the United States.”
Carter cited as examples Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Japan, “which is doing more in general in this part of the world to support the rules-based order in East Asia,” he said. Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made the same point on Sept. 21, a week after becoming leader, as he pledged to continue Australia’s surveillance flights over the South China Sea.
Carter and Kerry appeared alongside Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne and Foreign Minister Julie Bishopat the end of two days of talks on topics from the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to cyber-defense, cooperation in Afghanistan, maritime security and trade.
“We are on the same page with the United States when it comes to the claims in the South China Sea,” Bishop said. “We urge all parties to not act unilaterally, to not act in a way that escalates tensions, with primacy given to the principles of freedom of navigation, freedom of flight.”
Bishop, who has been foreign minister since 2013, was joined by Payne, a newcomer at the annual conference with Australia’s most important defense ally. Payne became defense minister last month after Turnbullunseated Tony Abbott in a leadership challenge.
The U.S. says it doesn’t take sides in the dispute over the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, but American officials have repeatedly said that they will act to protect freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways.
“The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not -- and will not be -- an exception," Carter said.
China claims more than 80 percent of the waters north of Australia, basing its claim on the so-called nine-dash line in a 1947 map that doesn’t give precise coordinates. Under President Xi Jinping, China has been dredging and dumping tons of sand to build out reefs below sea level since December 2013.
Visiting Obama in September, Xi claimed that islands in the South China Sea have been China’s territory “since ancient times.”
“We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests,” Xi said, through a translator, at a press conference with Obama. He added that China “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the islands.
But China has almost completed an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef capable of handling “most if not all” Chinese military aircraft, according to Gregory Poling, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Two other airstrips may be under construction, one each on Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, he said in a report for the group’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, citing satellite photos taken in September.
Three of the reefs that have been turned into islands -- Mischief, Subi and Gaven -- were formerly submerged at high tide and wouldn’t generate a 12-nautical-mile exclusion zone under international law, according to Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra.
He said one of those reefs may be where the U.S. would challenge China’s claims in a potentially tense confrontation at sea. While the New York Times reported that the U.S. has told Asian allies it plans such a challenge, defense officials say the Pentagon hasn’t yet been told by the White House to initiate such a Navy patrol.
While China isn’t the only country that has tried to bolster its claims by establishing a presence, the four officials made clear that they were addressing China. China has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land as of June, more than all the other claimants combined, according to a Pentagon report released in July.
“It doesn’t matter how big a country is,”’ Kerry said. “The principle is clear: the rights of all nations are supposed to be respected with regard to international law.”
Carter and Kerry also discussed Russia’s presence in Syria, with Carter announcing plans for Pentagon officials to meet again with their Russian counterparts Wednesday to discuss air safety.
“Russia must act professionally in the skies above Syria,” Carter said. He said that he expected an agreement on air safety “in very short order,” but emphasized that the U.S. would engage with Russia only on this aspect of its involvement in Syria. Russian officials have made clear their aim is to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who U.S. officials accuse of butchering his own people and intensifying the conflict by drawing extremists into the fight.
"We can’t associate ourselves" with Russia’s approach to Syria, Carter said. "It’s wrongheaded and strategically short-sighted," he said.