• Defense Secretary Carter urges China to cooperate on security
  • Forum is a lightning rod for tensions over South China Sea

Senior U.S. officials headed into a meeting of global defense chiefs in Singapore with a carefully-calibrated message for China on its actions in the disputed South China Sea, urging it to cooperate better with other countries.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue brings together ministers alongside heads of military, and has become a lightning rod for tensions over China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In recent years, China has reclaimed more than three thousand acres in waters also contested in part by countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In 2014, the forum descended into acrimony after then-U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called China’s actions destabilizing, prompting Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong to deviate from his scripted remarks the next day to describe Hagel’s words as “full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation.”

Last year, current Defense Secretary Ash Carter called out China on its land reclamation, noting it has “gone much further and much faster than any other” in building up the area.

Still, during a joint briefing on Friday with Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, and ahead of his speech to this year’s forum on Saturday, Carter said “the more everyone works together, the better.”

For a graphic on Asia’s military buildup, click here

“There’s a lot more that we can do together including with China and Singapore,” Carter told reporters after taking a P-8 Poseidon surveillance flight over the nearby Malacca Strait. “Everyone participates in the collective defense of our goals from today’s threats. That’s the ideal, that’s the objective of the U.S. military presence out here.”

Even so, the forum comes amid a climate of heightened friction over China’s actions, with the U.S. accusing two Chinese fighter jets of conducting an unsafe intercept last month of a U.S. 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.

More broadly, while the U.S says it is not targeting China by conducting "freedom of navigation" transits by navy ships near reefs China says belong to it, the tensions are framed by U.S. efforts to preserve its decades-long military dominance of the western Pacific at a time China is pushing to increase its clout.

‘Disturbing Signs’

Giving a speech in Singapore before the forum, U.S. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said the court ruling would be a test for China in how it wants to behave as a major power.

“Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is maneuvering toward a policy of intimidation and coercion,” he said. That included harassing fisherman from Southeast Asian nations, using trade as a “weapon” in disputes with neighbors, and conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law.

“The choice for China is how it uses its growing clout and position,” McCain said. China could choose a “better path,” he said, to “cooperate with its neighbors and manage disputes peacefully.”

‘Zero-Sum Game’

Speaking also to reporters on Friday, Ng said the U.S. presence in Asia had "provided conditions of stability."

“At the same time we recognize that situations change and China is rising,” he said. “And all of us agree that it’s not a zero-sum game. There’s no question of containment."

Any instability in the South China Sea, which carries more than $5 trillion in seaborne trade each year, would have an enormous impact, he said. He called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to show a united response to the disputes.

“We have to come together to cooperate, to preserve and protect,” Ng said. “That applies to Straits of Malacca or South China Sea or any other water body.” 

‘Political Will’

“There has to be an inclusive architecture, there has to be clear rules of the road where all of us understand how we resolve disputes, whether we have the political will to resolve disputes,” Ng said.

The 10-member Asean has in its statements called for an easing of tensions in the South China Sea, but has never singled China out by name. Laos holds the Asean chair this year and its leaders have met with senior officials from both China and the U.S. in recent months. China’s trade with Asean in 2014 was more than $360 billion, well above the U.S.

Speaking in Singapore on Friday after a meeting with Ng, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said his country’s policy regarding the South China Sea “is that ships cannot be disturbed,” and there’s a right for ships of any country to navigate the area.

International law should be used to settle the disputes, Parrikar told reporters. “International law is the basic framework,” he added. “And no coercion or forceful aspect must be used.”

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