US Defense Secretary Ash Carter Wednesday said he and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein would set sail Thursday into the disputed waters of the South China Sea, dpa reports.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

“Joined by my friend, Minister Hishammuddin, I’ll be flying out to the aircraft carrier US Theodore Roosevelt, which is conducting routine operations while transiting the South China Sea,” Carter told a press briefing at the end of a meeting of the defense ministers of the 10-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China and several other Asian nations have overlapping claims to islands in the South China Sea, a major shipping route which is also thought to be rich in mineral resources.

The US last week provoked “strong discontent” from China when it sailed a navy vessel within 22 kilometers of an outcrop claimed by both China and the Philippines, one of several US allies in the region.

Carter said his Thursday trip would be “the symbol of our commitment toward rebalance and the importance of the Asia-Pacific to the United States.”

The US defense chief criticized China’s adverse reaction to the US jaunt through the disputed area, saying that it was Beijing’s “dredging, reclamation and militarization” that is causing tension in the South China Sea.

“Let me just remind you that the presence of US naval vessel[s] in the South China Sea is not new … it has been going on for decades,” he said. “The new development there is the scale of reclamation and militarization.”

Carter said he was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting despite the failure of the ASEAN defense ministers to come out with a joint declaration that would have included a statement about the rising tension in the South China Sea.

“To me, this was a very successful meeting,” he said. “We discussed the South China Sea issue very productively as a group and bilaterally … we’re very satisfied with the discussion.”

China’s defense minister Chang Wanquan has urged the US not to threaten its sovereignty as well as the nation’s security interests following last week’s incident involving a US naval patrol in the South China Sea.

The concerns were expressed by Chang to Carter on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, where the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense chiefs met.

Chang stressed that the US should not pursue any other dangerous actions that threaten China’s security interests.

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