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Ashton Carter says US won't back down as tensions rise with China, Russia

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has accused Russia of endangering world order and vowed Washington would not back down over access to the South China Sea. The strong words underscore tensions in Asia, Syria and Ukraine.

The United States will continue to sail through disputed waters in the South China Sea, despite China's protests, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech on Saturday.

The top Pentagon official also used the speech to warn Russia that its actions were raising tensions between the two nuclear-armed powers.

Moscow's airstrikes in Syria, support for

separatists in eastern Ukraine

and loose talk about using nuclear weapons is making the world a more dangerous place, Carter said.

"Most disturbing, Moscow's nuclear saber-rattling raises questions about Russian leaders' commitment to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to the brandishing of nuclear weapons," Carter said during a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Rough waters in US-China relations

His remarks follow eight days of traveling in Asia where he

cruised on a US Navy aircraft carrier in the South China Sea

where Beijing has been constructing artificial islets in order to lay claim to territorial claim to strategic shipping lanes.

"As a rising power, it's to be expected that China will have growing ambitions and a modernizing military," Carter said. "But how China behaves will be the true test of its commitment to peace and security."

Meanwhile, Beijing said its foreign minister told his US counterpart in a telephone call that US naval patrols in the disputed waters are

harming bilateral relations.

"The acts by the US naval vessel in the South China Sea harmed mutual trust and provoked regional tensions. China is extremely concerned by this," Foreign Minister Wang Yi is reported to have told US Secretary of State John Kerry. "The US side should return as soon as possible to the correct path of appropriately managing disputes via dialog and consultation.”

Syria crisis deepens with Russia

Ash Carter

Carter's tough talk follows eight days touring Asia

Carter also criticized Russia's military intervention in Syria saying it could prolong the conflict - now in its fifth year. But he held out the possibility that

Moscow could use its leverage and clout

in ending the war.

"It is possible - we'll see - Russia may play a constructive role in resolving the civil war," Carter said. Responding to a question from his audience, Carter said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin "hasn't thought through very thoroughly" his objectives in Syria. He called the Russian approach there "way off track."

Tough, yet diplomatic, posturing

The defense secretary also brushed off any bellicose talk from Moscow about threatening the US militarily saying Washington had heavily invested in the latest armaments and was developing new types of weapons.

"We're investing in the technologies that are most relevant to Russia's provocations, such as new unmanned systems, a new long-range bomber, and innovation in technologies like the electromagnetic railgun, lasers and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones I really can't describe here," Carter said.

His speech was perhaps the strongest he has expressed about Washington's former Cold War rival, though Carter was careful to walk back any language that could be construed as threatening.

"We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia," Carter said. "We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake; the United States will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all."

jar/sms (AP, Reuters, dpa)

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