U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday called for an immediate end to island-building by China and other countries near the East Vietnam Sea, urging the participants to stop militarizing the dispute and find a peaceful solution.
Carter said China's island-building efforts were "out of step" with the regional consensus and that U.S. military aircraft and warships would continue to operate in the area as permitted under international law.
"China's actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways," he said in a military ceremony in Hawaii. "They're increasing demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific. We're going to meet it."
"We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come," Carter said.
Carter's comments, at Pearl Harbor, came a week after the U.S. Navy sent a P-8 reconnaissance plane carrying Navy and television camera crews to film Chinese island-building activity in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago in the East Vietnam Sea.
U.S. officials say China has added some 2,000 acres (800 hectares) to five outposts in Truong Sa, including 1,500 acres since the start of this year.
"We want a peaceful resolution of all disputes, and an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features," Carter said in his remarks.
Carter said the action in the East Vietnam Sea indicates that “China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific's security architecture, and the regional consensus in favor of non-coercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes."
The U.S. aircraft that flew near Truong Sa was repeatedly warned by a Chinese navy radio operator to leave the area.
Video taken by camera crews in the plane showed Chinese dredging ships working to turn reefs into islands and harbors. Its release aggravated Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the Truong Sa archipelago.
The islands also are claimed by several other countries in the region, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Carter is on the first leg of a trip that will take him to Singapore for the annual Shangri La Dialogue security conference and then on to Vietnam and India, where he will discuss maritime security issues and boosting security ties.
His comments came at a change-of-command ceremony for the U.S. military's Pacific Command, which is responsible for U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region.