Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says the United States will continue operations in the South China Sea after a US warship entered the disputed waters, provoking Beijing’s anger.
“There have been naval operations in that region in recent days, and there will be in the weeks and months,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits, and whenever our operation needs require it,” he added.
The Pentagon chief made the comments when asked about news reports that the US Navy had sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea late on Monday.
The move, which was meant to reassure allies in Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in the face of China’s actions in the Spratly Islands chain, was quickly condemned by Beijing as a “deliberate provocation.”
“We have made a commitment as part of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, which is so important to America’s future. We’re doing more at sea. We’re doing more in the way of presence,” Carter told US lawmakers.
Washington accuses Beijing of conducting a massive “land reclamation” program through building artificial islands in the South China Sea, saying that China’s projects could further militarize the region.
The White House had directed Pentagon officials not to publicly address the warship’s movement in waters China considers its territory. As a result, Carter tried to sidestep questions on the matter several times during the congressional hearing.
Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, pressed Carter to confirm the news of the latest maneuver. “Is that true? Did we do that?” Sullivan asked.
The Pentagon chief refused to give an affirmative answer. Sen. Sullivan interrupted him again by asking, “Did we send a destroyer yesterday inside the 12-mile zone?”
The exchange prompted the committee chairman, Republican Senator John McCain, to express exasperation. “Why would you not confirm or deny that that happened?”
Carter finally acknowledged the naval movement. “I don’t like in general the idea of talking about our military operations,” he said. “But what you read in the newspaper is accurate.”
China’s Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador on Tuesday to protest against the US move.