By David Brunnstrom
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter urged China on Saturday to join a “principled security network” for Asia, saying that the United States would remain the world’s most powerful military and the main guarantor of regional security for decades to come.
In an attempt to counter some concerns in Asia about U.S. staying power, Carter told a regional security forum in Singapore that the U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific remained “one of commitment, strength and inclusion.”
However, he said, any action by China to reclaim land in the Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop in the disputed South China Sea, would have consequences.
“I hope that this development doesn’t occur, because it will result in actions being taken by both the United States and … by others in the region which would have the effect of not only increasing tensions but isolating China.”
Carter said tensions in the South China Sea, where China has been backing its vast territorial claims by building artificial islands, North Korea’s nuclear program and violent extremism challenged regional peace and “forward thinking statesmen and leaders must … come together to ensure a positive principled future.”
He said the network he envisaged could also help protect against “Russia’s worrying actions” and the growing strategic impact of climate change.
The United States and many Asian countries were stepping up security cooperation to ensure they were able to make choices “free from coercion and intimidation,” Carter said at Singapore’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue,
“Even as 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 – those growing bilateral relationships demonstrate that nations around the region are also committed to doing more to promote continued regional security and prosperity,” Carter said.
Japan’s defense minister, speaking at the same event, said his country would help Southeast Asian nations build their security capabilities to deal with what he called unilateral, dangerous and coercive actions in the South China Sea.
“In the South China Sea, we have been witnessing large-scale and rapid land reclamation, building of outposts and utilization of them for military purposes,” Japanese Minister of Defence Gen Nakatani said, without mentioning China directly. “No countries can be an outsider of this issue.”
Carter said some “expansive and unprecedented actions” by China in pursuit of claims in the South China Sea, in cyberspace and in the air, had raised concerns about its strategic intentions. He urged Beijing to join the regional trend or risk “erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.”
“The United States welcomes the emergence of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China that plays a responsible role in the region’s principled security network. We know China’s inclusion makes for a stronger network and a more stable, secure, and prosperous region,” he said.
Carter stressed the work the United States had undertaken to strengthen security ties with countries including Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia as part of President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot, or rebalance, to the Asia-Pacific.
He said that for decades, some had wrongly predicted an impending U.S. withdrawal from the region, but this would not happen.
“That’s because this region, which is home to nearly half the world’s population and nearly half the global economy, remains the most consequential for America’s own security and prosperity,” Carter said.
In an apparent counter to “America-first” policies expounded by prospective Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, including suggestions that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Asia, Carter stressed bipartisan support for continued engagement.
“Regardless of what else was going on at home or in other parts of the world – during Democratic and Republican administrations, in times of surplus and deficit, war and peace – the United States has remained economically, politically, and militarily engaged, as well as geographically located in the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
Carter’s speech comes ahead of a significant ruling expected in coming weeks on a case filed by the Philippines in the International Court of Arbitration challenging China’s South China Sea claims, which Beijing has vowed to ignore.
The United States has been lobbying Asian and other countries to back the judges’ statement that their ruling must be binding. China has lobbied on the other side for support for its position that the court lacks jurisdiction in the case.
(Additional reporting by Masayuki Kitano.; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lincoln Feast)