US defence chief to visit carrier as S. China Sea tension simmers

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter will visit an American aircraft carrier off Malaysia on Thursday, a senior Defence Department official said, as US-Chinese tensions over the South China Sea escalate.

The official would not specify where the USS Theodore Roosevelt would be sailing at the time, but said the enormous nuclear-powered supercarrier is conducting a “routine transit” of the South China Sea.

Carter’s visit could add to worsening discord between Washington and Beijing over Chinese claims to virtually the entire South China Sea and its attempts to reinforce those claims by turning reefs and tiny islets into full-fledged islands through land reclamation.

Last week, Washington pressed its right to freedom of navigation in the area by sending the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen to within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the artificial islets in the Spratlys chain, angering China.

Earlier on Wednesday, Carter attended an Asia-Pacific defence ministers meeting in Malaysia that ended on a sour note as the United States and China butted heads over whether a final joint statement should mention the South China Sea.

“We could not reach a consensus on a joint declaration,” Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

– Finger-pointing –
He declined to lay blame for the breakdown and said “discussions were not heated”.

But both China and the United States pointed the finger at each other.

The US side said several Southeast Asian defence ministers opposed China’s demand that the South China Sea be left out of any statement.

A US official said the United States felt that “no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea”.

Beijing insists it has sovereignty over nearly all of the strategic waterway, through which about one-third of the world’s traded oil passes and whose seabed contains coveted energy and mineral deposits.

China’s territorial claims are widely disputed, however.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan all also have various claims, some overlapping, though none are as extensive as Beijing’s.

The sea has long been viewed as a potential flashpoint, and the Chinese island-building push has sent fears of conflict to new heights.

The programme includes runways and other large-scale development, and analysts say sites that were previously just reefs will be able to host military personnel and hardware.

The US official stressed that the USS Roosevelt would be far from any of the reclaimed Chinese “islands” at the time of Carter’s visit, and that the ship was not conducting the sort of “freedom of navigation” cruise performed by the USS Lassen.

Carter will be joined on the visit by Hishammuddin. They are expected to spend a couple of hours onboard.

– ‘Bottom line’ warning –
Wednesday’s annual dialogue in Malaysia included defence ministers from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and several regional partners such as Carter and China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the country’s defence ministry expressing “regret” over the failure to agree on a final text.

It said a consensus had been reached with ASEAN countries on the wording but that “individual countries outside the region” — an apparent reference to the United States — attempted to “forcefully add” new content.

Carter told Chang in a bilateral meeting late Tuesday that the United States would continue sailing in waters China claims.

Chang responded by warning that there was a “bottom line” below which Beijing would act to defend the islets, according to a US account of the talks, but the US delegation told reporters this would not deter future visits.

The South China Sea issue is a regular sticking point in ASEAN meetings.

Beijing and its allies in the bloc have previously opposed declarations expressing concern at Beijing’s maritime conduct.

But recent ASEAN declarations have increasingly made clear the grouping’s worries over China’s actions and intentions.

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