by William Gallo
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis slammed China’s militarization of disputed South China Sea islands, insisting that weapons systems recently deployed in the area are meant to intimidate and coerce Beijing’s neighbors.
The comments came during a Saturday speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asian defense forum in Singapore. In the speech, Mattis laid out the broader U.S. strategy for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.”
“China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals,” Mattis said.
Specifically, the Pentagon chief mentioned China’s deployment of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and the landing of a bomber aircraft at the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam.
“Despite China’s claim to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” Mattis said.
Focus on assertive China
Though much of the world is focused on an upcoming summit between North Korea and the United States, this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue has focused primarily on the region’s long-term future and how to deal with a more assertive China.
Beijing has begun projecting power beyond its borders, most notably through the construction and militarization of man-made islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, despite overlapping claims by countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Last week, the United States disinvited China from the Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC), a major international maritime exercise scheduled for later this year, citing Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea.
Mattis on Saturday referred to that disinvitation as an “initial response” to China, but he did not outline any additional steps that may be taken.
“The U.S. will continue to pursue a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China, cooperating when possible and competing vigorously where we must,” Mattis said.
Mattis blames China for tensions
During a question and answer session afterward, Mattis fielded a question from a Chinese colonel, who claimed that U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) are a provocation that violate international law.
“I understand the disagreement, but it is not one on which we are unstudied,” Mattis shot back, noting that the FONOPs take place in international waters. “This is not a revisionist view,” Mattis said.
Mattis laid the blame for rising South China Sea tensions on Beijing, saying it has ignored the concerns of its neighbors and ignored an international tribunal’s ruling on the issue.
“Nobody is ready to invade those features,” Mattis said. “Certainly, we could have had the dispute resolution go in a peaceful way.”
The Shangri-La Dialogue comes as the United States and North Korea prepare to hold denuclearization talks in Singapore. President Donald Trump on Friday said the summit will take place June 12.
“Our objective remains the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mattis said.
The United States has long demanded that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. But what’s less clear is what Washington is prepared to offer Pyongyang.
Mattis said any discussion about the future of 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in South Korea “will be separate and distinct from the negotiations” with North Korea.
“That issue will not come up in the negotiations with DPRK … nor should it,” he said, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name.
Instead, Mattis said any discussions about U.S. troops would be between Seoul and Washington.
During his trip to Singapore, Mattis has been reluctant to discuss the summit preparations, instead insisting that the Pentagon is focused on backing up U.S. diplomats leading the process.
“The hopes of the world are on these talks,” Mattis said.
But Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, warned that the negotiations in themselves are not the goal.
“I believe that it is important not to reward North Korea solely for agreeing to have a dialogue,” Onodera said, noting that Pyongyang has made denuclearization promises in the past, only to backtrack.
During his speech, Onodera repeatedly spoke of the need to deal with the threat of North Korea’s ballistic missiles “of all flight ranges.”
A report in the Washington Post suggested that Japanese officials are concerned the United States may strike a deal with North Korea that removes the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but not medium- and short-range missiles.
“These things fly over the Sea of Japan, they even fly over northern Japan. So that’s where the security threat comes from for them,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat focused on Northeast Asia.
Oba says that it will be important for the United States to closely consult with its allies in South Korea and Japan on its negotiations with the North.
“I think the most important thing for all of our allies is to stay relevant in the process and to demonstrate to their public that they’ve been closely consulted by the United States on this,” he said.