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First Plenary Session
The 14th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 29–31 May 2015. 

First plenary session

Saturday 30 May 2015, 09:00


Dr Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense, United States


Dr Ashton Carter, Secretary of Defense, United States

In the first plenary session, on the Dialogue’s Saturday morning, on ‘The United States and challenges to Asia-Pacific security’, US Secretary of Defense Dr Ashton Carter promoted the vision of a shared regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific region in which ‘all nations have the opportunity to rise and prosper’. The US rebalance toward Asia-Pacific is aimed at helping the region fulfil its promise, Carter said. The next phase of the rebalance includes new military platforms as well as economic and diplomatic engagement. He extolled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which recently passed an important milestone in winning congressional approval.

Carter announced that the US Department of Defense is launching a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative to help build capacity. In enumerating enhanced cooperation with several US partners in the region, he said that in late 2014 America and China had reached two ‘historic’ confidence-building agreements and are working on a measure to prevent dangerous air-to-air encounters.

Carter raised an issue of contention with China concerning its activities in the South China Sea. He noted that several nations that claim parts of that sea have developed outposts over the years. Yet China has gone ‘much further and faster than any other’; in just the past 18 months, China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined. This was a source of tension.

Expressing deep concern about the pace and scope of the land reclamation, the prospect for further militarisation and the potential for these activities to lead to miscalculation or conflict, Carter called for an immediate and lasting end to land reclamation by all claimants. Washington also opposes the construction of military structures on reclaimed land. He encouraged ASEAN and China to conclude their Code of Conduct on the South China Sea this year.

The US will continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight, Carter said, and to ‘fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows’. Making it clear that America ‘would not be deterred from exercising these rights’, he said ‘turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit’. China’s actions in the South China Sea put it out of step with the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific security architecture, he added.


Professor François Heisbourg, Chairman of the IISS Council, asked Carter about his understanding of China’s purpose in its activities in the South China Sea and what China’s continued pursuits there said about the effectiveness of the US response. Carter said China could speak for itself as to its purpose, and he repeated that America’s call for a halt to reclamation activities and to further militarisation was not directed only at China. Yoichi Kato, National Security Correspondent for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, noted that China has not responded to previous rhetorical appeals to stop reclamation activity and asked if it was not time for the US to take its response to a new phase in order to deter low intensity provocations. Rephrasing the question, Carter suggested that one consider the effect of failing to resolve the disputes in a peaceful way. The answer, he said, was that many nations in the region consequently want to strengthen their relationships with the US and other partners. Carter said, ‘this kind of behaviour, if it does not stop, one of the consequences will be the continued coalescing of concerned nations around the region and the world’. Josh Rogin, columnist for Bloomberg View, asked about North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and whether Carter, as the perceived ‘new leader of the Asia portfolio’ in the Obama Administration planned to reinvigorate what many feel is a ‘failed policy of strategic patience’. Correcting Rogin, Carter said Obama is the leader of the policy, and noted that it is a policy of seven decades of successive administrations to build a principled security system in Asia based on norms, and not coercion. While the effort to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free environment on the Korean Peninsula had not yet succeeded, the policy has united the five key countries in their opposition to nuclear proliferation.

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, Deputy Director-General, China–US Defense Relations Research Center, Academy of Military Science, PLA, called Carter’s criticism of China’s island and reef construction activities ‘groundless and not constructive’. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has never been affected, he said, and China has never taken any ‘proactive measures’ through construction activities that affect peace and stability. To the contrary, ‘over the past decades, the region has been peaceful and stable because of China’s great restraint’. He called China’s activities in the region ‘legitimate, reasonable and justified’. He asked if America’s harsh criticism, military reconnaissance activities and military threats help to resolve disputes in the South China Sea and maintain peace and stability in the region. In response, Carter repeated that land reclamation in the South China Sea was not limited to China, but that China’s recent large-scale activities are unprecedented. He said America’s air and sea operations in this maritime region have taken place for decades and would continue. Nor was it new, he said, when the ‘free press of the West covers large-scale reclamation activities’. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, commented that the US had done a ‘remarkable job of managing’ the rise of China through its benevolent actions. As China keeps rising, however, strategic adjustments will have to be made. He asked what these adjustments are likely to be and what additional confidence-building measures would be needed. Carter responded that the US does not see the situation in terms of having ‘allowed China to rise’. Rather, the US was part of a regional system of peace and stability wherein China could peacefully develop its economy. He repeated his theme of ‘creating an environment in which everybody can rise and win’. He was personally committed to working with China’s government and military on confidence-building measures. Senator Dan Sullivan, Member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, reinforced a point Carter had mentioned about the strong bipartisan support in the US for the rebalance toward Asia-Pacific. Sullivan asked Carter to expand on the potential with regard to energy security and broader security in the region of the US energy revolution. Carter noted that the domestic energy revolution was rapidly turning the US from a net energy consumer to a net energy producer, but this did not change the fact that for China, Japan and other countries, oil-tanker transit through the Malacca Strait was a vital lifeline. It was thus important to ensure freedom of navigation.

Professor François Heisbourg, Chairman of the Council, IISS; Special Adviser, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique

Professor François Heisbourg, Chairman of the Council, IISS; Special Adviser, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique Yoichi Kato, National Security Correspondent, The Asahi Shimbun Josh Rogin, Columnist, Bloomberg View
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Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, Deputy Director-General, China–US Defense Relations Research Center, Academy of Military Science, China Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore Senator Dan Sullivan, Member, Armed Services Committee, US Senate
Plenary 1 photo 2
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