SINGAPORE — Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will visit Beijing later this year to build upon recent overtures to focus on cooperation with China, even as the U.S. emphasizes that it will be the primary hedge against future aggression in the South China Sea.
Carter announced the trip during his speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, where he is one of about 20 defense ministers set to discuss security issues in Asia. Chief among those issues are territorial disputes and security concerns arising from China’s development of airstrips and installation of military features on top of reclaimed reefs and other land features in the South China Sea.
“The United States remains committed to working with China to ensure a principled future,” Carter said, noting that China will continue to participate in the annual RIMPAC exercises, thereby increasing the two military’s interactions.
“In fact, the United States and China will sail together from Guam to Hawaii for RIMPAC, conducting seven exercise events along the way, including an event to practice search-and-rescue,” Carter announced.
Carter has made travel to the Asia-Pacific a top priority of his tenure, as part of the Obama administration’s emphasis on the Pacific’s ability to shore up key alliances in response to a rising China.
The approach has been questioned by Republican U.S. senators also attending Shangri-La, who see the increased cooperation as a reward for China’s aggression.
Carter has traveled to the region five times in the sixteen months since he took office. During that time, the Pentagon announced enhanced defense cooperation agreements with the Philippines and Singapore, in addition to emphasizing exercises with India and Malaysia. The Pentagon has also moved forward on Japan’s new defense policy, which allows Japan to come to the defense of allies for the first time since the end of World War II — including the U.S. warships that have been the cornerstone of Japan’s pacifist defense strategy for 70 years.
In a historic visit to Vietnam last month, President Barack Obama also announced the end of the arms embargo to Vietnam, allowing the nation access to the full range of U.S. exported weaponry.
“The United States will remain the most powerful military and main underwriter of security in the region for decades to come — and there should be no doubt about that,” Carter said in his speech Saturday.
The emphasis on cooperation instead of direct confrontation is a theme that was frequently pushed by U.S. Partners in the Asia-Pacific in the buildup to this years’ conference.
“I believe that if we look at everything from the standpoint of conflict, we will never be a able to see a way out,” said Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha.
A vision of the U.S. remaining the primary architect of peace in the region is not shared by China. The country has accused the U.S. of enflaming regional tensions surrounding its construction on the Spratly, Woody and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, primarily through the Freedom of Navigation sails and surveillance flights the U.S. has made within the area China claims as sovereign territory.
China has recently responded by harassing patrolling U.S. aircraft and increasing the overtures it makes to traditional U.S. allies.
Late last month, China’s president Ji Xinping reached out to the newly elected Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, to warm relations between the two nations. Duterte responded by suggesting the Philippines may seek a more independent role from the U.S. and negotiate bilaterally with China over its South China Sea disagreements.
China did not send its defense minister to the dialogue. Instead, as it did last year, the nation sent Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department, Admiral Sun Jianguo.
In a question and answer session at the opening speech, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army officer traveling with the official delegation questioned the U.S. vision as the region’s primary security architect.
“For half a century ASEAN [the Association of South East Asian Nations] has developed a way of dealing with disputes among member states in a peaceful way,” said Major General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science.
The U.S., Carter said, is committed to remaining part of the Asian security dialogue, emphasizing that it will continue to see its role as a primary enabler of the balance of power in the region.
“America wants to expand military-to-military agreements with China to focus not only on risk reduction, but also on practical cooperation,” Carter said. “As the region changes and the rebalance is solidified, the United States is and will continue using its unique capabilities, experience, and influence to enhance the region’s security network — always contributing with commitment, strength, and inclusion.”