For the second time in five months, Defense Secretary Ash Carter landed aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in the bitterly contested South China Sea, sending a deliberate message to China on American power in the region.
With a key Asia Pacific ally at his side, Carter's visit aboard the USS John C. Stennis underscores persistent complaints from the U.S. and its allies in the region about China's military build-up in the South China Sea. Beijing has been creating man-made islands, and equipping many with runways, fighter aircraft and other weapons.
Carter stood alongside Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin as they watched U.S. Navy fighter jets launch into the vivid blue skies, about 70 nautical miles west of the island of Luzon.
Later in the massive gray ship's hangar bay, Carter said his message in making the trip is that the United States "intends to continue to play a role in keeping peace and stability in this region."
He said the only reason America's presence in the region comes up as an issue is because of China's behavior over the last year - and "that's a question of Chinese behavior."
"What's new is not an American carrier in this region. What's new is the context of tension which exists, which we want to reduce," he said.
Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 3, told reporters that the Stennis and the ships in the carrier's strike group "regularly have a (Chinese) ship or two operating with us or near us." So far, he said, the Chinese vessels have been operating very professionally. "We've been very pleased with the interactions we've had," he said. "They are operating where they think they should, we're operating where we think we should. They generally have professional discussions over the bridge about where we are."
China Hits Back
China's Foreign Ministry already issued a statement criticizing increased U.S. military support for the Philippines, saying Thursday that, "military exchanges by relevant countries should not target third parties, much less support a few countries in challenging China's sovereignty and security, inciting regional contradictions and sabotaging regional peace and stability."
And on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that, "Before the U.S. returned to the Asia Pacific region, relevant countries had sought to control the disputes and handle the conflicts through friendly negotiations, despite the disputes having existed for over four decades."
Source: China Post