China could be erecting “a great wall of self-isolation” with its increasingly provocative moves against its neighbors, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on Friday.
Carter focused on the Asia-Pacific region in his commencement speech at the US Naval Academy.
Carter said China wants and enjoys the benefits of free trade and a free Internet, but sometimes chooses to restrict both.
“The result is that China’s actions could erect a great wall of self-isolation as countries across the region — allies, partners and the unaligned — are voicing concerns publicly and privately at the highest levels, regional meetings and global forums,” Carter said.
“Such a model reflects the region’s distant past, rather than the principled future we all want for the Asian-Pacific,” he said.
China has sought to bolster its claim to almost the entire South China Sea by building new islands atop coral outcroppings and adding airstrips, harbors and military infrastructure.
Washington refuses to recognize these features as having the same legal claim to naturally occurring islands and while taking no formal position on sovereignty claims, insists that all nations enjoy the right to freely sail and fly through the strategically vital area.
The US is committed to upholding the freedom of navigation and commerce and peaceful resolution of disputes, Carter said.
“We’re committed to ensuring that these core principles apply equally in the South China Sea as they do everywhere else,” Carter said.
“Only by ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules can we avoid the mistakes of the past where countries challenged one another in contests of strength and will with disastrous consequences,” he added.
Carter said that while China says the South China Sea should be handled separately from the broader US-China relationship, “the United States cannot do such a thing.”
“China’s actions there challenge fundamental principles and we can’t look the other way,” Carter said.
The defense secretary said that many of this year’s 1,076 academy graduates are to join the 365,000 service members already serving in the region.
Carter praised the academy for working to create a top-notch learning environment for cybersecurity as the field has grown in importance to national security.
In 2011, the academy began requiring two cybersecurity courses for all students. This year, 27 students graduated with the major.
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