The U.S. military's long-discussed "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region took a confrontational turn as Defense Secretary Ash Carter traveled to Asia and signaled that the U.S. may not recognize China's claims to new territory in the South China Sea.
"We've been flying over the South China Sea for years and years and years, and ... we'll continue to do that — fly, navigate, operate," Carter told reporters on a plane to Asia for a key summit of defense leaders in Singapore.
Carter's trip comes as China stokes tensions in the region with frenetic dredging work in contested reefs and the rapid creation of man-made islands in the South China Sea.
The manufactured real estate could allow China to claim new territorial waters and airspace in the region. International law typically recognizes territorial waters 12 nautical miles beyond sovereign land.
But Carter suggested the U.S. will not recognize any new definitions of Chinese territory based on those artificially created islands and facilities built on submerged reef structures.
"The United States ... will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and the 12 nautical miles … does not pertain to features that were submerged, and now are no longer submerged," Carter told reporters on the flight to Singapore on Wednesday.
In effect, claiming new territory could allow China to block U.S. intelligence flights in the area around its naval facilities in Hainan.
Some of the world's busiest shipping routes cross through the South China Sea, including daily tankers from the Middle East supplying fuel for the booming Chinese economy.
On the eve of Carter's trip to Asia, the Chinese government released a military planning document that outlines its navy strategy and intent to add "open seas protection" to its core naval mission. The document signaled a further shift toward China's investment in naval power rather than the land power that dominated Chinese military planning for decades.
Chinese plans call for new aircraft carriers, an expanded fleet of submarines and advanced anti-surface ship weaponry.
Tension between the U.S. and China intensified in a May 20 confrontation between Chinese military officials and a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft flying near some of the newly built islands.
U.S. officials later released audio recordings of the confrontational exchange between the American pilot and Chinese Navy.
"This is the Chinese navy, this is the Chinese navy, this is Chinese sky," a Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy official said, according to the recordings. "Foreign military aircraft, this is the Chinese navy, you are approaching our military alert zone. Please leave immediately to avoid misjudgment."
A U.S. Navy officer replied: "I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities outside national airspace. I am operating with due regard, as required, under international law."
China is constructing a military-grade airstrip on one of the artificial islands and recently announced the start of work on two new lighthouses. In all, the Pentagon estimates the artificial land created so far to total about 2,000 acres.
Alleged reclamation by China is seen on what is internationally recognized as the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea.
Photo Credit: Philippines Department of Foreign Affiars/AFP
About 1,500 of those acres have been developed since January, U.S. officials say, showing the rapid acceleration of China's activities.
During a stop in Hawaii for a U.S. Pacific Command change-of-command ceremony, Carter called for "an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant."
"China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific's security architecture, and the regional consensus in favor of noncoercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes," Carter said, later adding that the U.S. "will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come."
Carter's trip continues with visits to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and stops in India and Vietnam. In all three spots, the secretary plans to focus on developing allied capability in the region.
"China's actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways," he said. "And they're increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We're going to meet it."
Defense News staff writer Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.