SINGAPORE – Talks at the Asia Security Summit on Saturday highlighted once again the intensifying confrontation between the United States and China over disputes in the South China Sea.
Known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the summit was held in Singapore and attended by senior defense officials of more than 30 countries, mainly from the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States sternly criticized China’s construction of military installations in the South China Sea, and Japan joined in that criticism.
“China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a speech delivered on Saturday. He criticized China’s unilateral maritime development and warned that China would be isolated in the international community if it does not adhere to international rules.
There were sharp exchanges of words during the question and answer session that followed Carter’s speech. Regarding China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, a Chinese participant said: “China’s practice is not an exception. A lot of countries have engaged in this kind of practice, including Vietnam and the Philippines.”
Carter replied, “China is doing by far and away more of this kind of reclamation and militarization than any other party.”
According to the U.S. Defense Department, China has almost completed its reclamation work in the Spratly Islands and the militarization of the islands, including construction of radar facilities, is believed to be in its final stage. China has also installed surface-to-air missiles in the Paracel Islands.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday that China is ready to impose an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, citing sources close to the People’s Liberation Army.
In connection with territorial disputes over the South China Sea, the Philippines has brought a case before The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration over China’s claims in the sea. The court is expected to hand down a decision as early as later this month, but China is expected not to recognize it.
It is difficult to find effective measures to restrain China’s assertiveness, and Japan and the United States have made complementary efforts to put more pressure on China while strengthening their cooperation with neighboring countries.
During their talks on Saturday, held on the sideline of the summit, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and Carter confirmed that their countries would strengthen their presence in cooperation with southeast Asian countries.
Carter said the U.S. military is continuing to deploy “its most advanced capabilities,” including F-22 stealth jets and P-8 patrol aircraft, as well as continuing freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in an apparent effort to put pressure on China.
On Friday, Carter flew over the Strait of Malacca aboard P-8 patrol aircraft that has been sent to Singapore in rotation.
The Defense Ministry has focused on measures such as helping to strengthen surveillance capabilities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as the Self-Defense Forces are occupied with surveillance activities in the East China Sea.
However, it remains unknown whether the measures taken by Japan and the United States will bear fruit. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has taken a hard line toward China but his term as president concludes at the end of this month. The policy stance of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has yet to be made clear, as he mentioned that he would shelve territorial issues.
Japan and the United States’ backing of the Philippines may undergo a significant change in the near future.