Defense Secretary Ash Carter floated the possibility of more joint patrols with other militaries in the Asia-Pacific, at a time when regional tensions are running high as a result of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Carter outlined "new ways to ensure security in the Asia-Pacific" during a speech aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego on Thursday, signaling the Pentagon’s openness to conduct joint patrols with partners to enforce freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
"Freedom of navigation may also be upheld, in part by joint and network patrols, as network navies and air forces fly, sail, and operate together everywhere that international law allows to ensure the region’s waterways remain safe and open," Carter said.
Carter’s comments come amid escalating tensions between China and its neighbors over Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims.
China has pursued land reclamation on disputed features in the South China Sea, constructing air strips and reinforced hangars on manmade islands in what experts and U.S. officials describe as "militarization" of the crucial body of water. China has also rattled Japan with its actions around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, over which both nations and Taiwan claim sovereignty.
Beijing has rejected the ruling by an international tribunal in July that its claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea have no legal or historical basis, a decision that the United States and other powers have urged China to accept.
The Pentagon has sailed warships close to disputed territories in the region under the rules of innocent passage, but the operations have thus far done little to reverse Beijing’s aggressiveness.
Regional powers have expressed a desire to conduct joint patrols amid Chinese aggression. During a visit to Washington, D.C., earlier this month, Japan’s defense minister said Tokyo is willing to conduct joint training patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.
China on Thursday warned Japan against "playing with fire" in the South China Sea.
During his speech focused on the implementation of America’s so-called "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific, Carter checked China for undercutting the right of other nations to freely navigate through international waters and skies in the Asia-Pacific. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of "preserving the freedom of navigation and overflight guaranteed by international law."
"The United States still has some serious concerns with some of China’s recent actions on the seas, in cyber space, and elsewhere," Carter said. "Beijing sometimes appears to want to pick and choose which principles it wants to benefit from and which it prefers to undercut."
"For example, the universal right to freedom of navigation that allows China’s ships and aircraft to transit safely and peacefully is the same right that Beijing criticizes other countries for exercising in the region," he said. "The principles are not like that; they apply to everyone and every nation equally."
The defense secretary mentioned the possibility of the United States cooperating on cyber with regional powers in the Asia-Pacific, including Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, and Singapore.
Carter, who is due to meet with his defense counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEA) in Hawaii on Friday, also noted that the United States is boosting the Coast Guard’s engagements with partners in the Asia-Pacific.
Meanwhile, Carter said that the Pentagon is working to "modernize" its military-to-military relationship with China by strengthening communications to "reduce the risk of miscalculations that could lead to crises" and engaging in regular multilateral exercises.
"China is rising, which is fine, but sometimes behaving aggressively, which is not," Carter said.
The Obama administration’s policy toward China came under criticism from experts last week, who said before a panel of lawmakers on Capitol Hill that more needs to be done militarily and diplomatically to deter Beijing.
Carter’s speech followed a Navy Times report this week that the White House’s National Security Council told the Pentagon not to speak of the "great power competition" with China when publicly discussing military challenges posed by Beijing.
Carter did reference "competition" with China during his remarks on Thursday.
"As President Obama has said, the U.S.-China relationship will have elements of cooperation, but also competition," Carter said. "We hope that China chooses to join the rest of the region in strengthening and upholding the shared principles that have helped so many nations around the region, including China, to rise and to prosper."