Fiery Rhetoric Over Contested Waters
On November 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with representatives of several Asia-Pacific nations on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Minister's Meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
In a meeting with General Chang Wanquan, the Minister of National Defense of the People's Republic of China, Secretary Carter emphasized that the U.S. is committed to a “rebalance” in the Asia-Pacific. He said that bilateral military liaison between American and Chinese defense forces could contribute to regional understanding, and he called for a halt to what he described as China's militarization of the South China Seas.
U.S. officials described the meeting to reporters as “business-like and cordial” in tone. “They made it clear that they don't like these measures,” an American representative said. “But there was none of the fiery rhetoric that you may have seen in media from other officials.”
On the same day, in Beijing, head of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. delivered a speech at Peking University that elicited a somewhat less cordial response from Chinese officials.
“We’ve been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no one should be surprised by them,” Admiral Harris said. “The South China Sea is not, and will not, be an exception.” He emphasized that U.S. forces had performed these operations “while avoiding military conflict, and that remains our goal.”
In response, PLA Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui said that he had planned “to have a good talk with you on the South China Sea issue. However, just before your visit … the U.S. sent a naval vessel to sail near [China's island claims], which has created a very disharmonious atmosphere for our meeting and this is most regretful.”
The admiral has in the past accused the Chinese of building a “great wall of sand” in their dredging and land reclamation program in the Spratly Islands. According to earlier reports the U.S. plans to conduct naval patrols of these islands at least twice every three months.
In a text edition of regular press briefing remarks, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson described Admiral Harris' comments as nothing more than political theater. “What has been unfolding lately is just like watching a self-orchestrated, self-directed and self-performed show,” she said. “The so-called issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a pseudo-proposition. There are over 100,000 ships from countries around the world sailing safely and freely through the South China Sea every year.”