WASHINGTON - The United States is concerned about possible reclamation by China of a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday, citing a potential risk of military conflict.
"We take that seriously, very seriously," Carter told a congressional session, mentioning the view that China could begin reclamation work later this year at Scarborough Shoal, which has been seized by China despite an ownership claim by the Philippines.
The shoal is within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but has been controlled by China since 2012. The Philippines is one of the Asian countries with which the United States has a security treaty.
"It's a piece of disputed territory that, like other disputes in that region, has the potential to lead to military conflict," Carter said.
The U.S. military last week sent warplanes and helicopters to international airspace near Scarborough Shoal, according to the U.S. Pacific Air Force.
China has been allegedly trying to use some areas in the contested Spratly and Paracel islands in the sea for military purposes by constructing large-scale facilities such as airstrips and installing military equipment on them, ignoring objections by other claimants.
"There are certain aspects of Chinese behavior that are very disturbing to us" and cause self-isolation by China, Carter said.
The United States has criticized China's unilateral activity and sent military ships and aircraft within what China claims to be its territory, drawing strong reactions from Beijing.