US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has raised the prospect of additional American steps against China if its “militarisation” of the South China Sea keeps apace. He says Beijing is intimidating and coercing others in the region by putting weapons systems on man-made islands.
President Donald Trump, backing the remarks by his Pentagon chief at an international security forum in Singapore, said on Twitter on Saturday: “Very surprised that China would be doing this?”
Mattis said the Trump administration’s recent decision to disinvite China from a multinational naval exercise this (northern) summer was an “initial response” to Beijing’s island activity. Mattis called the US action a “relatively small consequence. I believe there are much larger consequences in the future.” China’s reliance on military muscle to achieve its goals “is not a way to make long-term collaboration the rule of the road in a region that’s important to China’s future”, Mattis said, when asked to elaborate.
“There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost, so to speak, with China, if they don’t find a way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations who have interests,” he said.
The bluster comes at a delicate time in US-China relations, as the Trump administration is warily asking for China’s help with North Korea ahead of a June 12 summit, while also threatening a trade war.
Trump renewed his threat to hike tariffs on Chinese goods, just days before his commerce secretary’s arrived in Beijing on Saturday for trade talks. Mattis said there was little doubt about Beijing’s intentions. “Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” Mattis said at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
China recently has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and other equipment on the Spratly Islands, and landed a bomber aircraft at Woody Island.
Mattis echoed comments made by Australia’s Defence Minister Marise Payne, who had warned against countries in the region adopting a “might is right” approach to international relations.
Senator Payne, in addressing the same forum, had insisted nations have a right to be free from coercion when they reasonably object to the behaviour of other nations.
Senator Payne pointed to the recent Australia-East Timor settlement of a long- running maritime boundary dispute using a United Nations conciliation process. “It’s an example of the rules-based order in action,” she said. Mattis’ comments drew a pointed reaction from a Chinese official at the meeting. Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo said a US move to send two warships into China’s “territorial waters” was a violation of law, and an “obvious provocation to China’s national security and territorial integrity”.
Mattis responded that the question reflected a fundamental disconnect with the way international tribunals have spoken on the matter.
“We do not see it as a militarisation by going through what has traditionally been an international water space,” said Mattis of the US ship movements through the South China Sea. “What we see it as, is a reaffirmation of the rules-based order.”
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