Mattis: “China disregard international law” in South China Sea
Rebuking China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, United States Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said in a widely anticipated speech here on Saturday (June 3) that Washington “cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo”.
Mr Mattis, who is visiting the region for the second time since taking office, said the scope of China’s construction activities in the South China Sea differed from those of other countries in several key areas.
“This includes the nature of its militarisation, China’s disregard for international law, its contempt for other nations’ interests and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues,” the retired Marine General told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the region’s premiere security forum.
He added: “We oppose countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, and in recent years launched massive land reclamation projects to build artificial islands in the region.
US think tanks monitoring Beijing’s activities via satellite images said China has placed weaponry, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on at least seven of the artificial islands.
China has repeatedly insisted that the new features were built mainly for civilian use, and that it was “legitimate and normal” for it to take steps to defend its territory.
Mr Mattis sought to strike a balance in his speech, saying that Washington wants to work closely with Beijing where they have common cause and that a stable relationship between the two superpowers is vital to global stability and prosperity.
“Yet, we cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermine the rules-based order that has benefited all the countries represented here today, including and especially China,” he added. The scope and effect of China’s construction activities in the South China Sea differ from those of other countries in several key ways,” Mattis told the Shangri-La regional defence summit in Singapore. “This includes the nature of its militarisation… China’s disregard for international law … (and) its contempt for other nations’ interests.”
His comments echoed those of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who in his keynote address to the forum on Friday night said it was important to preserve the rules based structure in the region that has enabled all parties to prosper.
“This means cooperation, not unilateral actions to seize or create territories, or militarise disputed areas,” Mr Turnbull said, referring to China’s reclamation and constructions works in the South China Sea.
Mr Mattis urged Beijing and the other claimants in the South China Sea territorial dispute to adhere to and use a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to resolve their differences. China has rejected the ruling, which invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon chief said the US would “demonstrate resolve” through its operational presence in the South China Sea, adding: “We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows…Our operations throughout the region are an expression of our willingness to defend our interests and the the freedoms enshrined in international law.”
Analysts had been looking to Mr Mattis’ speech for hints of potential changes to Asia-Pacific policy under US President Donald Trump, whose sharp departures from his predecessors’ positions on global trade, security and climate change have raised serious concerns.
Mr Mattis’ broad ranging remarks, however, appeared to be consistent with previous US administrations’ emphasis on diplomacy and cooperation with allies in the Asia Pacific. He gave the assurance that the Asia-Pacific remained a priority region for US, not just economically but also militarily.
He added: “Currently, 60 per cent of all US navy ships, 55 per cent of army forces, and about two-thirds of fleet marine forces are assigned to the US Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Soon, 60 per cent of overseas tactical aviation assets will be assigned to this theatre.”
On North Korea, he reiterated the warning by Mr Trump that “the era of strategic patience is over” and that the US regarded the threat of North Korea’s nuclear programme as a “clear and present danger”.
On Asean, Mr Mattis said the US supported greater engagement with the regional grouping “because no single bilateral relationship can get us where we want to go”.
Despite his assurances, one Australian academic questioned whether “we are present at the destruction” of the US-led global order, following the Trump administration’s decisions to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris Accord on climate change.
“Bear with us, once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, Americans will do the right thing,” said Mr Mattis, wryly paraphrasing a famous comment attributed to the late British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Earlier on Saturday, Mr Mattis met his Singaporean counterpart Dr Ng Eng Hen over breakfast. Both countries reaffirmed their “excellent and long-standing bilateral defence relationship”, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
“Dr Ng and Secretary Mattis also acknowledged the importance of the US’ continued presence in the Asia-Pacific in ensuring peace and stability. They also exchanged views on the threat of extremism and terrorism in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Sulu Sea and the Southern Philippines,” the statement added.
Mr Mattis ended his speech with a warm tribute to Singapore, calling it a “beacon to this region, and to the world”.
He added: “This unique forum is only possible because of our unique host…(Singapore’s) openness to the world, the mutual respect it engenders, and the prosperity of this city state allows us to be here to discuss our differences in a positive environment. And for that, I’m grateful.”