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US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visits aircraft carrier in South China Sea

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has visited an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea in a move likely to offend China. Last week, the US sailed a warship close to China's artificial islands in the disputed waterway.

Ashton Carter, who was in Malaysia for talks with Asian defense ministers, visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday, signaling the US' intention to keep a strong naval presence in the South China Sea.

Washington and Beijing have been locked in a conflict for years over China's territorial claims in the area.

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich region in its entirety

, asserting its "historic rights" to the South China Sea's maritime resources. The other countries in the region - Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan - also have claims to the waterway.

The US fears that China's artificial islands in the waters could be used for military purposes.

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sails in the Pacific Ocean in a November 2009 photo provided by the U.S. Navy (Photo: REUTERS/US Navy/CPO John Hageman/Handout via Reuters)

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China

"There is a lot of concern about Chinese behavior out there," the US defense secretary said during his three-hour stopover at the aircraft carrier. He was accompanied by Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Carter also said that the US would keep its presence in the area as "a signal of the critical role that the United States military power plays in what is a very consequential region for the American future."

Last week, the US sent the guided missile destroyer USS ship to within the 12-nautical-mile limit of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea. The move provoked angry reactions from China.

On Tuesday, the head of the US Pacific military forces said

the navy did not intend any threat to China

when it sent a warship past the country's contested space in the Spratly Archipelago. Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. spoke Tuesday to Stanford University students studying at Peking University during his first visit to the Chinese capital, Beijing, as commander of US Pacific Command.

"International seas and airspace belong to everyone and are not the dominion of any single nation," Harris said Tuesday, according to prepared remarks. "Our military will continue to fly, sail, and operate whenever and wherever international law allows. The South China Sea is not - and will not - be an exception."

shs/jil (AFP, AP)

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