PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — A day after China laid out its vision for a navy that can project power into the open seas, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Wednesday criticized Beijing’s efforts to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, making it clear that the United States would not be deterred by Chinese claims to newly built territories.
Though American officials have long insisted that the Obama administration’s so-called pivot or rebalance toward Asia is not aimed at one country, Mr. Carter’s comments left little doubt that Washington shared the concerns of other Asian nations about China’s growing military presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and the increasingly assertive posture of its forces in disputed waters around Asia.
The South China Sea is especially sensitive. It is bisected by vital shipping lanes that connect Asia to the Middle East and Europe, and China’s efforts to create artificial islands and build military structures on reefs and other outcroppings have alarmed the Philippines, a close American ally, and other countries, like Vietnam and Malaysia.
“China’s actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways. And they’re increasing demand for American engagement,” Mr. Carter said during a ceremony at the naval base at Pearl Harbor marking a change of command of United States forces in the Pacific. “We’re going to meet it. We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
American defense officials say that international law does not recognize Chinese claims of sovereignty over artificial territories reclaimed from the sea. And Mr. Carter, apparently in a warning to China, said Wednesday that American forces would not respect territorial claims that they considered illegitimate.
“There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” he said.
At issue is more than an abstract legal dispute: The Pentagon is weighing how aggressively it should send aircraft and warships into what it considers international waters. An American surveillance jet last week flew near Fiery Cross Reef, a contested atoll in the Spratly Islands where China has been dredging in recent months. Chinese forces repeatedly ordered the American aircraft to leave the area, and China’s Foreign Ministry later characterized the flight as “irresponsible and dangerous.”
At the same time, China appears to be pushing ahead with its building spree in the disputed waters. On Tuesday, Chinese state news media announced that construction had begun on two new lighthouses in the Spratly Islands, adding to the growing number of structures that satellite images indicate China is building, including airstrips.
Mr. Carter added that the United States favored “a peaceful resolution to all disputes, and a halt to land reclamation by any claimant.”
Mr. Carter is en route to Singapore to attend an annual security meeting known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which begins Friday. There, he said, “I’ll call for the region to strengthen its security institutions and relationships to ensure we can maintain lasting peace and stability in a region undergoing significant change.”