US will keep confronting Beijing in the South China Sea, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis vows

Mattis said that the US is the only country to “take active steps” to rebuff China, but that it would continue in order to maintain freedom of navigation in the waters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 6:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 6:34am

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis vowed on Tuesday that the US would keep confronting China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing has established a significant military presence on contested islands.

Mattis’s remarks came after Beijing voiced “strong dissatisfaction” on Sunday after two US warships sailed by an island in the disputed Paracel Island chain.

Two US warships sail near South China Sea islands claimed by Beijing

“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 told reporters as he flew to Hawaii.

The US Navy periodically conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the contested waterway, where it sails close to island features China has built into military facilities as a way of showing it rejects any territorial claims.

“We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world, but we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law,” Mattis said.

Sunday’s operation was conducted just over a week after Beijing flew nuclear-capable bombers to a disputed island, drawing immediate criticism from the US.

Military trust under strain after China told it can’t take part in naval drill

Last week, the Pentagon pulled its invitation to China to join maritime exercises in the Pacific over Beijing’s “continued militarisation” of the South China Sea.

Beijing has been building artificial islands to reinforce its claim over most of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite protests from Southeast Asian countries.

Its neighbours, particularly some of those involved in maritime disputes over the waters, have expressed fears China could eventually restrict freedom of navigation and overflight.

“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 militarisation of features in the South China Sea.”

China angers US by landing bombers on South China Sea reef

Mattis was heading to Hawaii to attend a change-of-command ceremony for the US military’s Pacific Command.

The current head, Admiral Harry Harris, has been nominated to be the new ambassador to South Korea. He will be replaced by Admiral Philip Davidson. Mattis is then due to attend a regional security conference in Singapore.