Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday, May 29, said that the United States will continue to confront China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, arguing that Beijing hasn’t abided by its promise to not establish military presence on contested islands.
“We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world,” Mattis told reporters. “But we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue.”
Mattis’ statement came after Beijing’s “strong dissatisfaction” when two U.S. warships sailed close to the Paracel Islands, which lie north of the Spratlys, on Sunday, May 27, – the latest freedom of navigation operation designed to challenge Beijing’s claims.
The U.S. Navy periodically conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the contested waterway. These navigation missions, according to the U.S., are meant to underscore the rights of the U.S. and others to operate in international waters and airspace and to block efforts by any nation to unlawfully extend their boundaries or territorial rights.
“You’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff (such operations) or state their resentment of them, but it’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we will continue that,” Mattis said.
Sunday’s operation was conducted a week after Beijing flew nuclear-capable bombers to a disputed island.
Last week, Beijing was disinvited to join in a large, multinational naval exercise in the Pacific later this summer. China had participated in the exercise known as Rim of the Pacific in 2014 and 2016 but due its “continued militarization” of the South China Sea, the invitation for this year was withdrawn.
The Pentagon called on China to remove the systems it deployed to contested areas in the Spratly Islands, but China said it is “within their rights to build up defenses on islands in the South China Sea” as it believes they are its sovereign territory.
Other neighboring nations have expressed concern over the “weaponization” of the islands and reefs.
“Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this,” Mattis said.
“The concerns have come to me not just from American government circles but also from foreign nations that are concerned, very concerned about this continued militarization of features in the South China Sea,” he added.
Mattis stopped in Hawaii so that he can attend a change-of-command ceremony for the U.S. military’s Pacific Command before flying out to Singapore for a regional security conference. n