Pentagon chief visits U.S. carrier in disputed South China Sea, blames Beijing for tension

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Pentagon Chief to Visit U.S. Aircraft Carrier in South China Sea

By Yeganeh Torbati

ABOARD THE USS, South China Sea, Nov 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter flew to a U.S. aircraft carrier transiting the disputed South China Sea on Thursday and blamed China for rising tension in the region on a visit sure to infuriate Beijing.

Carter's visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein came just over a week after the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, challenged territorial limits around one of China's man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

"Being here on the Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea is a symbol and signifies the stabilizing presence that the United States has had in this part of the world for decades," Carter told reporters as the carrier sailed about 150 to 200 nautical miles from the southern tip of the Spratlys and about 70 nautical miles north of Malaysia.

Asked about the significance of his visit at such a time, he said: "If it's being noted today in a special way, it's because of the tension in this part of the world, mostly arising from disputes over land features in the South China Sea, and most of the activity over the last year being perpetrated by China."

The warship was "conducting routine operations while transiting the South China Sea," Carter said on Wednesday after a meeting of defense ministers from Southeast Asia in Malaysia, a forum marred by the U.S.-China disagreements over the sea lane.

Beijing has rebuked Washington over the patrol while China's navy commander has warned that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its "provocative acts."

"China has consistently respected and safeguarded all countries' freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed under international law," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Thursday when asked about the Carter carrier visit before it took place.

"...What we oppose is waving the banner of freedom of navigation to push forward the militarization of the South China Sea and even provoke and endanger other countries' sovereignty and security interests. In this aspect, we hope the relevant actions and intentions of the U.S. can be made open and above board."

The U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about U.S. rights under international law, a U.S. defense official said on Monday.

U.S. defense officials have said Carter would not be on any warship carrying out such patrols.

"Teddy Roosevelt's presence there and our visit is a symbol of our commitment to our rebalance (to Asia) and the importance of the Asia-Pacific to the United States," Carter said on Wednesday.

In July, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was on board a Boeing P-8 surveillance plane as it carried out a seven-hour flight over the South China Sea.

Swift said his flight was routine, but it drew a rebuke from China. In May, Beijing called a U.S. P-8 surveillance flight carrying a CNN team over the South China Sea "irresponsible and dangerous."

See photos of the disputed waters:

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Disputes over islands in the South China Sea
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Pentagon chief visits U.S. carrier in disputed South China Sea, blames Beijing for tension
This areal photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Monday, May 11, 2015. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, has flown to Pag-asa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 3, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - MARCH 17, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression #2 of 3. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 2 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 1 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
Map locates mad-made islands in South China Sea; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
In this April 8, 2008, file photo, guided missile destroyer USS Lassen arrives at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit. Just two days after the USS Lassen sailed past one of China's artificial islands in the South China Sea in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims, Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Yang Yujun said Thursday that China will take "all necessary" measures in response to any future U.S. Navy incursions into what it considers its territorial waters around the islands. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
Philippine and US Marines aboard riverine patrol boats take position during a beach landing as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine and US Marines board riverine patrol boats during a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines maneuver during a live fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Philippine Navy's World War II-vintage warship BRP Rajah Humabon is anchored during the navy's founding anniversary celebration at a naval station in Cavite city, west of Manila on May 25, 2015 with buildings along Roxas boulevard in Manila in the background. The Philippine navy is one of the weakest in the region relying mostly on decades-old, surplus US warships, but the Philippine government has been modernising the navy and other branches of the armed forces in the face of China's increasing aggressiveness in trying to claim most of the South China sea. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. Navy's amphibious assault vehicle with Philippine and U.S. troops on board storms the beach at a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the US and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Philippine Marines take position next to a US Marine assault amphibious vehicles (AAV) during a live-fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines simulate a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises with the US at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Navy's amphibious assault vehicles with Philippine and US troops on board maneuver in the waters prior to storming the beach at a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the U.S. and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Philippine Marines cheer as a U.S. Navy AAV (Amphibious Assault Vehicle) storms the beach during a combined assault exercise facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the U.S. and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
This areal photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows the dilapidated Sierra Madre ship of the Philippine Navy anchored near Ayungin Shoal with Filipino soldiers onboard to secure perimeter in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Modnay, May 11, 2015. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, has flown to Pag-asa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
Philippine Marines watch U.S. Navy amphibious assault vehicles storm the beach during a combined assault exercise facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the U.S. and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
A Filipino resident, center, and soldiers conduct a flag raising ceremony during the visit of Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, to Pag-asa Island in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines Monday, May 11, 2015. Catapang has flown to a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Navy's amphibious assault vehicles with Philippine and U.S. troops on board maneuver in the waters prior to storming the beach at a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the US and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Filipino soldier Tychico Octobre patrols the shore of Pag-asa Island during the visit of Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, to the island in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, western Palawan Province, Philippines Monday, May 11, 2015. Catapang has flown to a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
Filipino environmental activists display placards during a rally outside China's consular office in Manila on May 11, 2015, against China's reclamation and construction activities on islands and reefs in the Spratly Group of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. The group is accusing China of destroying the fragile ecosystem and livelihood of fishermen during their reclamation project. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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The 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) scrapped a joint statement to be issued after their meeting on Wednesday because they were unable to agree on whether it should refer to the South China Sea dispute or not.

The United States had lobbied for inclusion of a reference, while China had argued it had no place in the statement. Carter and his Chinese counterpart attended the meeting.

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Washington believed that the U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation was welcomed by ASEAN.

"People want the United States to be present, people want to know that the United States is going to be a stabilizing force ... but they also want us to have a good relationship with China," said Rhodes, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The United States says it takes no position on the South China Sea claims. China denies it's impeding freedom of navigation or overflight in the waterway.

Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said the fact Hishammuddin was with Carter spoke to the Southeast Asian solidarity with Washington that the United States wanted to project.

"But in the actual demonstration of freedom of navigation, I think the reverse question currently applies: Is the U.S. doing enough?" Graham asked.

"It's not so much the provocative statement of the photo opportunity of landing on the deck of the 'big stick' ... If you dig into this carefully enough, you will find, I think, extreme caution in how the U.S. is going about the freedom of navigation assertions."

Last week's patrol by the USS Lassen, which has since joined the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group, was the first such mission close to China's holdings in the Spratlys since 2012.

The Lassen's commanding officer, Robert C Francis Jr, said the ship came within six to seven nautical miles of the nearest Chinese formation during the patrol.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Matt Siegel in Sydney and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Dean Yates and Nick Macfie)

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