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Defense Secretary Carter in Vietnam warns China again over South China Sea expansion

During a visit to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke out about tensions in the South China Sea, where the Chinese have been rapidly building reefs into human-made islands. President Obama said China shouldn’t be “throwing elbows” over its claim. While Beijing denies hostile intent, the Pentagon says surveillance flights have spotted artillery systems. William Brangham reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And we turn now to Asia and a dispute over tiny islands in the South China Sea that is dominating Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's visit to the region.

    William Brangham reports.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The secretary's Asia-Pacific tour took him to Vietnam today, but China, and its recent moves at sea, were never far from mind.

  • ASHTON CARTER, Defense Secretary:

    The United States opposes militarization and the creation of tensions in the South China Sea, even though we are not a claimant to the South China Sea.'

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The issue also drew President Obama's attention at a White House event today. He suggested that China may have some legitimate claims, but:

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    They shouldn't just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way. If in fact their claims are legitimate, people will realize them.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The clash of claims now focuses on the Spratly Islands, where the Chinese are rapidly building reefs into manmade islands.

    Recent U.S. Navy video shows dredging work and the construction of airstrips and harbors on the Spratlys. At a security conference in Singapore yesterday, a Chinese admiral defended the land-building.

    ADM. SUN JIANGUO, China's People Liberation Army (through interpreter): These constructions are well within the scope of China's sovereignty and are justified, legitimate and reasonable. They do not aim to pose a threat to another country or affect the freedom of navigation.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But even as Beijing denies hostile intent, Pentagon officials say surveillance flights have spotted mobile artillery systems on the islands. They have since been removed or hidden. And, last week, China's navy warned a U.S. surveillance plane to leave the area, in a sign of growing sensitivity to American surveillance.

    A tabloid owned by the ruling Communist Party even declared that war with the U.S. is — quote — "inevitable" unless Washington backs down.

    Back in Hanoi today, Secretary Carter maintained the United States won't be intimidated.

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    No actions by any party will change the United States' behavior. We will fly and sail and operate wherever international law permits, and that will remain unchanged.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    At the same time, the U.S. is urging Vietnam and other allies to curb some of their own activities in the disputed waters, as Carter said Saturday in Singapore.

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Republican Senator John McCain, chair of the Armed Services Committee, has also been visiting the region, and voicing his own concerns.

  • SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.:

    We are not going to have a conflict with China, but we can take certain measures which will be disincentives to China for them to continue this kind of activity.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Those measures include efforts to shore up regional military, such as giving $18 million to help Vietnam buy U.S. patrol boats.

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