HONOLULU (AP) – The US will continue to oppose China's militarization of artificially created islands in the South China Sea, Defense Minister Jim Mattis said on Tuesday, arguing that Beijing has failed to keep its promises not to lay arms on the Spratly Islands [1
"We're leaving Our way to work with Pacific nations is the way we do business in the world," Mattis told reporters traveling with him to a national security conference in Singapore. "But we will also confront what we believe is out of line with international law, in line with international tribunals who have taken a stand on this issue."
The United States has long criticized China's far-reaching sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, controversial from several neighboring governments. On Sunday, two US warships sailed near the Paracel Islands, north of the Spratlys, the last freedom of navigation to question Beijing's claims. China protests against the maneuver.
The latest spit, however, comes in unusual tensions between the US and China in trade and as President Donald Trump looks at a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear program.
China is North Korea's traditional ally, shying away from a shift in power relations on the Korean peninsula. After threatening to pull away from the summit last week, Trump attributed the "change of attitudes" to the influence of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently met with Kim. However, on Tuesday, the summit was back on track when Kim sent a senior advisor to Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo in New York.
According to the US, the freedom of navigation missions is intended to unlawfully extend the rights of the US and others to operate in international waters and in airspace and to block a nation's efforts to unlawfully extend its borders or territorial rights. But Washington has signaled its displeasure in another way, having withdrawn an invitation to Beijing last week to attend a large, multinational naval exercise in the Pacific later this summer. China participated in 2014 and 2016 in the exercise known as Rim of the Pacific.
The Pentagon said the decision to disinfest the Chinese Navy was triggered by what it called strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, including missile systems and electronic jammers in contested areas of the Spratly Islands. It called on China to remove the systems.
China says it is within its rights to build defenses on islands in the South China Sea that it deems to be its territory.
Mattis said that other nations in the region are concerned about arming the islands and reefs, and they want to see continued freedom of navigation in international waters.
"If you notice there is only one country that takes active steps to reject them or express their resentments," Mattis said, referring to China.
In recent years, the US has attempted to stabilize military relations with China, but the militarization of the islands has been a persistent point of conflict. Many nations fear that Beijing will use the construction on the islands to expand its military reach and possibly limit navigation in the South China Sea.
Revoking the exercise of the invitation, however, could undermine the US's historical arguments China should not hold the military relationship between the two nations hostage to other broader issues – such as differences over Taiwan. Dismissing China from the exercise could signal that joint activities or the military relationship as a whole are a reward.
Mattis stops in Hawaii on his way to Singapore to attend the leadership change ceremony at US Pacific Command.
USA Navy Adm. Philip Davidson becomes PACOM of Adm. Harry Harris take over during the change of command on Wednesday.
Harris was named the next US ambassador to South Korea.