US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said the United States would “sharpen our military edge” in Asia and the Pacific to remain a dominant power in a region feeling the effects of China’s rising military might.
Carter made the pledge in a speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in port in San Diego on Thursday.
The Pentagon chief described what he called the next phase of a US pivot to Asia – a rebalancing of American security commitments after years of heavy focus on the Middle East.
His speech, aimed at reassuring allies unsettled by China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, came three days after he made remarks at a nuclear missile base in North Dakota about rebuilding the nuclear force. Those comments prompted a strong reaction from the Russian foreign ministry, which issued a statement saying it had interpreted Carter’s statement as a declared intention to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons.
He said the Pentagon would make its attack submarines more lethal and spend more to build undersea drones that could operate in shallower waters where submarines could not.
“The United States will continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice,” he said. “We’re going to have a few surprises as well”, he said, describing them only as “leap-ahead investments”.
With a broad complaint that China is “sometimes behaving aggressively”, Carter alluded to Beijing’s building of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“Beijing sometimes appears to want to pick and choose which principles it wants to benefit from and which it prefers to try to undercut,” he said.
“For example, the universal right to freedom of navigation that allows China’s ships and aircraft to transit safely and peacefully is the same right that Beijing criticises other countries for exercising in the region. But principles are not like that. They apply to everyone, and every nation, equally.”
Carter’s speech was meant to set the scene for a meeting in Hawaii yesterday with his counterparts from the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which focuses mainly on trade issues but with US encouragement has sought to engage in a range of defence and military issues. The US is not a member of the organisation but has sought to use it as a forum for developing security partnerships amid regional concern about China’s military build-up.
Fudan University professor Xin Qiang said the US had made big strides in the latest stage of its pivot to Asia, deploying sophisticated weapons and firming alliances in the region.
But Shao Yuqun, from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said there were more negative results than positive from the move.
“The US has seemingly isolated China by strengthening its Asian allies, but cracks have already appeared in ties between the US and the Philippines, which might be a sign of more to come,” Shao said.
Military observer Zhou Chenming said that while the new phase of the pivot to Asia would not usher in a new arms race, it was inevitable that both China and the US would keep updating their arsenals to target each other.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang