For the second time in five months, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter landed aboard a US aircraft carrier in the bitterly contested South China Sea, sending a deliberate message to China on US power in the region.
With a key Asia Pacific ally at his side, Carter’s visit aboard the USS John C. Stennis underscores persistent complaints from the US and its allies in the region about China’s military buildup in the South China Sea.
Beijing has been creating artificial islands, and equipping many with runways, fighter aircraft and other weapons.
Carter stood alongside Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin as they watched US Navy fighter jets launch into the vivid blue skies, about 130km west of the island of Luzon.
Later in the massive gray ship’s hangar bay, Carter said his message in making the trip is that the US “intends to continue to play a role in keeping peace and stability in this region.”
He said the only reason the US’ presence in the region comes up as an issue is because of China’s behavior over the past year — and “that’s a question of Chinese behavior.”
“What’s new is not an American carrier in this region. What’s new is the context of tension which exists, which we want to reduce,” he said.
Carter spent about two hours on the ship, watching a number of fighters shoot into the sky off the flight deck, do circles around the Stennis and then land again, roaring to a stop as their tailhooks caught the arresting wire.
He later spoke to several hundred sailors in the hangar bay, including one who asked why the US allows China to participate in the large annual military exercise in the Asia Pacific.
He said the US wants to work with China, adding that Beijing should not isolate itself.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday issued a statement criticizing increased US military support for the Philippines, saying: “Military exchanges by relevant countries should not target third parties, much less support a few countries in challenging China’s sovereignty and security, inciting regional contradictions and sabotaging regional peace and stability.”
Beijing continued its rhetoric yesterday, with ministry spokesman Lu Kang (陸慷) saying: “Before the US returned to the Asia Pacific region, relevant countries had sought to control the disputes and handle the conflicts through friendly negotiations, despite the disputes having existed for over four decades.”
He told reporters during a press conference that if the US wants a peaceful solution to disputes, “I hope it can practice what it has preached, and that their actions can really help to peacefully solve the disputes.”
The Philippines is one of several countries, including Taiwan, that have overlapping claims with China.
The US has said it does not take a position on the claims, but wants them settled legally.
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