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Tensions Continue Over Disputed Islands In South China Sea

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

U.S. and Chinese officials have been trading criticisms for the past few weeks over China's building on disputed islands in the South China Sea. The two countries' military ships and planes have cautiously maneuvered around each other. This weekend, the two sides faced each other at a security forum in Singapore. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing that there are no clear answers in sight to this complex regional dispute. But for now, both sides appear to have kept it from escalating into direct conflict.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke to military officials and analysts gathered at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum. Carter called for all parties in the dispute to stop building on and militarizing the disputed islands. But he was especially critical of China.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2015 SHANGRI-LA DIALOGUE)

ASH CARTER: With its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia Pacific security architecture and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion.

KUHN: He added that building on the reefs would not help China to stake its claim to them. Later, a member of the Chinese military delegation took the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2015 SHANGRI-LA DIALOGUE)

SENIOR COLONEL ZHAO XIAOZHUO: I think your criticism is grandiose and not constructive.

KUHN: Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo rebutted Carter's argument that China's activities are threatening freedom of navigation in the area.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2015 SHANGRI-LA DIALOGUE)

XIAOZHUO: The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not at all an issue because the freedom has never been affected.

KUHN: Chinese delegation leader Admiral Sun Jianguo indicated that China could declare an air defense zone over the South China Sea, and that could require foreign aircraft in the area to identify themselves and follow Chinese military instructions. Secretary Carter tempered his criticism of China by offering the reassurance that the U.S. is not trying to thwart China's rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2015 SHANGRI-LA DIALOGUE)

CARTER: It's important to remember that America's balance has never aimed to hold any nation back or push any country down. The United States wants every nation to have an opportunity to rise and prosper and win.

KUHN: But many Chinese are convinced that the rebalance is, in fact, aimed at them and that the current tensions in the South China Sea prove it. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.