China could be erecting "a Great Wall of self-isolation" with its increasingly provocative moves against its neighbors, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday.
Carter focused on the Asia-Pacific region during his commencement speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. Carter said China wants and enjoys the benefits of free trade and a free Internet, but sometimes chooses to restrict both.
"The result is that China's actions could erect a great wall of self-isolation as countries across the region — allies, partners and the unaligned — are voicing concerns publicly and privately at the highest levels, regional meetings and global forums," Carter said. "Such a model reflects the region's distant past, rather than the principled future we all want for the Asian-Pacific."
China has sought to strengthen its claim to almost the entire South China Sea by building new islands atop coral outcroppings and adding airstrips, harbors and military infrastructure.
The U.S. government refuses to recognize these features as having the same legal claim to naturally occurring islands, and while taking no formal position on sovereignty claims, insists that all nations enjoy the right to freely sail and fly through the strategically vital area.
The United States is committed to upholding the freedom of navigation and commerce and peaceful resolution of disputes, Carter said.
"We're committed to ensuring that these core principles apply equally in the South China Seas as they do everywhere else," he said. "Only by ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules can we avoid the mistakes of the past where countries challenged one another in contests of strength and will with disastrous consequences."
Carter said that while China says the South China Sea should be handled separately from the broader U.S.-China relationship, "the United States cannot do such a thing."
"China's actions there challenge fundamental principles, and we can't look the other way," Carter said.
The defense secretary pointed out that many of this year's 1,076 academy graduates will join the 365,000 service members already serving in the region.
Carter also praised the academy for working to create a top-notch learning environment for cybersecurity as the field has grown in importance to national security. In 2011, the academy began requiring two cybersecurity courses for all students. This year, 27 students graduated with the major.
Also, female students who graduated wore pants instead of skirts.
"The idea is uniformity across the ranks," said Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman.
This is the 40th class to include women. The academy first admitted female students in 1976. This year's incoming class was 28 percent women, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said.
"No one should be denied the opportunity and the honor to defend and serve their country because of the color of their skin, their gender or who they love," Mabus said.