SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter gently chided China on Friday for its approach to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, suggesting Beijing has been isolated by its strong-arm tactics.
Speaking at a news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Carter implicitly accused the Chinese of militarizing the issue, highlighted in recent days by evidence of Chinese land reclamation projects which have turned a number of previously submerged reefs in the Spratlys archipelago into artificial islands. The islands could be used for military and other facilities to bolster China's disputed territorial claims.
"One of the consequences" of not dealing with territorial disputes "in a multilateral, diplomatic fashion is it's hard to have friends and allies that way," Carter said. "And the United States has lots of friends and allies and partners in this part of the world." He added, "We don't conduct ourselves coercively, we don't militarize situations like that."
China rejects the notion that it is behaving irresponsibly. In Bejing on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China advocated talks to resolve tensions between rival claimants to islands in the South China Sea, where island groups sit astride some of the world's busiest shipping lanes and potentially huge mineral reserves.
Carter was on his first visit to Asia since becoming defense secretary in February. He met Friday with President Park Geun-hye and senior members of her government. Earlier in the week he was in Japan. Aides said Carter intended to discuss the South China Sea situation with U.S. officials at Pacific Command in Hawaii on Saturday.
Carter also paid a visit Friday to South Korea's 2nd Navy headquarters at Pyeongtaek naval base and laid a wreath at a memorial to the 46 South Korean sailors who died when the warship Cheonan was sunk in 2010. A Seoul-led international investigation concluded that the ship was hit with a North Korean high-explosive torpedo.
South Koreans were outraged by the attack, which North Korea denies was its doing.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo, standing beside Carter beneath the Cheonan's split hull, which stands in dry dock in memory of those who died, thanked the U.S. Pentagon chief for paying his respects.
"We showed today that should there be any further provocation by the North we will retaliate firmly and together," Han said as Carter nodded.