US defense chief visits aircraft carrier in S China Sea

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Source:   —  April 16, 2016, at 5:41 AM

S. aircraft carrier in the bitterly contested S China Sea, sending a deliberate message to China on American power in the region. With a key Asia Pacific ally at his side, Carter'south visit aboard the USS John C.

US defense chief visits aircraft carrier in S China Sea

For the second time in five months, Defense Secretary Ash Carter landed aboard a U. S. aircraft carrier in the bitterly contested S China Sea, sending a deliberate message to China on American power in the region.

With a key Asia Pacific ally at his side, Carter'south visit aboard the USS John C. Stennis underscores persistent complaints from the U. S. and its allies in the region about China'south military build-up in the S 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 seventy nautical miles W of the island of Luzon.

Later in the massive gray ship'south hangar bay, Carter said his message in making the ride 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'south presence in the region comes up as an issue is because of China'south behavior over the last year— and "that'south a question of Chinese behavior."

"What'south new isn't an American carrier in this region. What'south new is the context of tension which exists, which we wish to reduce," he said.

Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, the commander of Carrier Strike grouping three, told reporters that the Stennis and the ships in the carrier'south 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."

Below a blazing sun, as the heat index pushed past one hundred degress, Carter landed on the Stennis in a Marine V-22 Osprey helicopter. He spent about two hours on the ship, watching a no of fighters shoot into the sky off the flight deck, do circles around the Stennis and then land again, roaring to a stop as their tailhook caught the arresting wire.

He later spoke to several hundred sailors in the hangar bay, including one who asked why the U. S. allows China to partake in the large annual military exercise in the Asia Pacific. Carter said the U. S. wants to work together with China, and added that Beijing shouldn't isolate itself.

The U. S. insists that the increasing American presence in the S China Sea and the broader Asia Pacific is meant to indicate support for allies and isn't aimed at any one nation.

But the U. S. military presence also reinforces Carter'south assertion that America will continue to fly and sail throughout the region, despite China'south claims of sovereignty over the vast S China Sea.

China'south Foreign Ministry already issued a statement criticizing increased U. S. military support for the Philippines, saying Thursday that, "military exchanges by relevant countries shouldn't target third parties, much less support a few countries in challenging China'south 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."

He told reporters during a press conference that if the U. S. wants a peaceful solution to disputes, "I hope it can practice what it's preached, and that their actions can really assistance to peacefully solve the disputes."

The Philippines is one of several countries that have overlapping land claims with China. The U. S. has said it doesn't get a position on the claims, but wants them settled legally.

But Carter'south visit to the Philippines this week, and Gazmin'south presence on the carrier sent a more pointed message of solidarity.

The visit to the Stennis comes a day after Carter announced new military aid to Philippines that spurred protests from China.

This will be the second time that Carter has flown onto a carrier while it's embarked in the S China Sea. Latest November, he was on the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it sailed northwest of Borneo.

That visit came just as week after a U. S. Navy destroyer, the USS Lassen, challenged China'south claim to a 12-mile territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, about one hundred fifty miles to two hundred miles from where the Theodore Roosevelt was sailing Thursday.

Earlier in the day on Friday, Carter spoke at the closing ceremony for a joint U. S.-Philippines combat exercise called Balikatan or shoulder-to-shoulder.

He said the U. S. "will continue to stand up for our safety and freedoms" and those of America'south friends and allies. And he said the U. S. is committed to insuring that the Asia Pacific remains a region where every can rise and prosper.

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