China risks erecting a “Great Wall of self-isolation” in Asia over its actions in the disputed South China Sea, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a global defence forum in Singapore.
“There is growing anxiety in this region, and in this room, about China’s activities on the seas, in cyberspace, and in the region’s airspace,” Carter said on Saturday in a speech to the Shangri-La security dialogue. He called China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea “unprecedented” and urged it instead to join the US in cooperating on security in Asia.
“Countries across the region have been taking action and voicing concerns publicly and privately, at the highest levels, in regional meetings, and global fora,” he said. “As a result, China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.”
China’s assertion to a large swath of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes pits it against smaller Southeast Asian states who also claim parts of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in seaborne trade passes the year. The area has become a flash point for a broader rivalry between China and the US – which is not a claimant – in the western Pacific.
In recent years, China has reclaimed more than three thousand acres in the waters and beefed up its military presence, while saying its activities in the area are also designed for civilian purposes like search and rescue. In turn, the U.S. has resumed freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, where its ships sail near reefs claimed by China and other nations.
For a graphic on the South China Sea issue, click here
The forum comes amid friction over China’s actions, with the US accusing two Chinese fighter jets of conducting an unsafe intercept last month of a US surveillance plane in international waters, and with an international tribunal expected to rule soon on a Philippine challenge to China’s South China Sea claims.
Still, Carter said the US welcomes China’s rise. “We know China’s inclusion makes for a stronger network and a more stable, secure, and prosperous region,” he said. “In all of our interactions with our Chinese counterparts, the United States consistently encourages China to take actions that uphold – and do not undercut – the shared principles that have served so many in Asia-Pacific so well.”
Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, said Carter’s tone was “gentler and more low key than I had expected.”
“All the countries would of course like to have a security framework in Asia which stresses cooperation and principles,” he said. “That’s ideal but the issue is all parties need to understand and accept the principles.”
Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agreed the atmosphere at Shangri-La seemed more conciliatory this year. “You can tell there’s a willingness to engage each other diplomatically, with less saber-rattling.”
Ahead of the Hague ruling, diplomats from China and the US have criss-crossed the region to drum up support for their position, including with Association of Southeast Asian Nations states like Cambodia, Brunei and Laos – which holds the Asean chair this year.
Chinese ambassadors from the UK to Sierra Leone have penned articles explaining its position, alongside paid supplements like one published in the Saturday edition of the Telegraph newspaper in the UK.
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