Disputes over territory in the South China Sea are causing countries in the region to increase their demand for an American security presence, the US defense chief said Sunday, Reuters reports.

USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s islands

A US warship USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in South China Sea Tuesday in the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits Beijing claims around the Spratly archipelago.

The move triggered an angry rebuke from Beijing and a warning that a minor incident in the area, which is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, could spark war if the United States did not stop what it called “provocative acts.”

“The attention to disputed claims in the South China Sea, the prominence of those disputes, is having the effect of causing many countries in the region to want to intensify their security cooperation with the United States,” US Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters on his way to South Korea.

Later, while visiting Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, Carter called on North to shrink and eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons program, AP reports.

North should be on a path of doing less, and ultimately zero, in the nuclear field, he said.

“For now, what we have is what you see beyond us, a very starkly divided and heavily defended border area,” Carter told reporters as he stood on the South Korean side of a marker inside the DMZ that forms the de-facto border.

At Panmunjom, the so-called truce village where the July 1953 armistice was signed pausing the Korean War, Carter, flanked by US and South Korean soldiers, looked across the line dividing the Koreas and then turned to tell reporters the US alliance with South Korea is “iron clad.”

“Being here shows you up close how dangerous this part of the world is,” he said.

It was Carter’s first visit to the DMZ as defense secretary and marked the start of a week-long Asia tour that also will take him to Malaysia.

Asked whether he saw any reason for optimism about getting North Korea off its nuclear path, Carter noted that the Communist country’s leadership is largely a mystery to Washington.

On Monday Carter is attending an annual security conference with South Korean defense leaders in Seoul.

The talks are expected to focus on Seoul’s progress in developing the military capacity believed necessary to no longer require the Americans to command South Korean forces in the event of a North Korean invasion.

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