Manila (AFP) – US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he would visit a warship close to flashpoint waters of the South China Sea on Friday, as Beijing reacted defiantly to an American military build-up in the area.
Carter’s trip to the USS John C. Stennis is the latest move by the United States to show it is committed to maintaining security in the hotly contested waters, where China has built artificial islands on islets and reefs that are close to the Philippines.
In announcing his short visit to the warship, which was due to take place on Friday afternoon, Carter emphasised it would support the Philippines and other allies as they faced “coercion and intimidation”.
“We will continue to stand up for our safety and freedoms, for those of our friends and allies, and for the values, principles, and rules-based order that has benefited so many for so long,” Carter said at the closing ceremony for the 10-day war games.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters close to its Southeast Asian neighbours, and has in recent years built the islands in an effort to assert what it insists are its sovereign rights.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop vast oil reserves.
China has constructed the islands on reefs in the Spratlys archipelago, which are close to the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as airstrips capable of accommodating military aircraft.
China in 2012 also took control of a rich fishing shoal just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from the main Philippine landmass. The shoal is 650 kilometres from China’s nearest major landmass.
Philippine and American officials would not disclose exactly where the Stennis was sailing on Friday.
However Carter was due to make only a short flight to the carrier from a military base on the southwestern Philippine island of Palawan, which is the closest landmass to the Spratlys.
Carter announced on Thursday that the United States had launched joint naval patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea, as he spoke of growing concern about China’s “land reclamation” and “militarisation” of the region.
He also said the United States would deploy hundreds of troops, as well as warplanes, to the Philippines.
– Chinese warning –
China reacted defiantly to the announcement, with its defence ministry warning the military would protect the nation’s territory.
“US-Philippine joint patrols in the South China Sea promote regional militarisation and undermine regional peace and stability,” said a Chinese defence ministry statement released late Thursday.
“The Chinese military will pay very close attention to related developments, and firmly safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests”.
The 275 US troops and nine aircraft that Carter said would stay in the Philippines following the Balikatan war games are the first major deployments under a bilateral defence pact finalised in January.
The pact allows US forces to rotate soldiers and military hardware through the Philippines, an important part of American efforts to expand its military presence throughout the Asia-Pacific.
US forces will initially have access to five Philippine military bases, including two close to the hotspot areas of the South China Sea.
Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday said he hoped the US efforts would “deter uncalled-for action by the Chinese”.
The heightened US military presence in the Philippines is an important plank of the United States’ so-called re-balance to Asia under President Barack Obama.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Friday blamed the United States’ deploying extra forces to the Asia-Pacific for any rise in tensions in the region.
“Peaceful settlement of the disputes is what regional countries including China and parties directly concerned by the South China Sea aspire to,” Lu told reporters in Beijing.
“Before the US rebalance to Asia, the relevant disputes had already existed for several decades.”