Mattis Calls Beijing’s South China Sea Military Moves a Coercion Attempt

Arturo Kim
June 3, 2018

Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Mattis said China's placement of weapons systems, including missile batteries and military aircraft, at outposts in the disputed sea raised questions about Beijing's intentions.

In a dig at China, which the Pentagon has accused of using "predatory" economics to exploit neighbors, Mattis said the USA supports the peaceful resolution of disputes, "free, fair and reciprocal trade and investment" and adherence to global rules and norms.

It comes days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was said to have threatened war if his troops were harmed in the area, which his country also lays claim to.

"Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the goal of intimidation and coercion", Mattis said.

But Mr Mattis also said the United States welcomed cooperation with China "wherever possible", and announced that he had accepted Beijing's invitation to visit soon.

"We are aware China will face an array of challenges and opportunities in coming years, we are prepared to support China's choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region", Mattis said.

China accused the United States of trespassing after two Navy warships sailed near a reef claimed by Beijing on Sunday.

Andrew Yang, a former Taiwanese defence minister who is also at the security conference in Singapore, said he expected the USA to tread carefully on the Taiwan issue so as not to provoke the mainland into taking military action against the self-ruled island.

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Earlier that week, the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to China to participate in the world's largest multinational maritime exercise RIMPAC as "an initial response to China's continued militarisation of the South China Sea".

But in a quick pivot, he said the USA welcomes cooperation with China "wherever possible", and announced that he has accepted Beijing's invitation to visit there soon. China's Defense Ministry spokesman, Wu Qian, called the USA warships a "provocation" which violated worldwide laws, and blamed the United States for growing militarization of the region.

The defence secretary also confirmed the Pentagon was keen to help Taiwan defend itself, in comments that were likely to further anger China, which also claims the island.

On Sunday, two USA warships sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, drawing a sharp rebuke from China. China has not sent high-level officials to the three-day meeting, in an apparent attempt to deflect attention from its campaign to expand its sovereignty across virtually the entire South China Sea.

But the message of inclusivity, cooperation and working with allies might be a tougher sell for Mattis, who is generally popular on the worldwide scene, after his boss this week imposed metals tariffs on some of America's closest allies in the name of "national security".

His comments come ahead of a planned June 12 summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "This is our priority theater", Mattis added.

Mattis has tried to avoid weighing in on the summit, deferring questions to the State Department and Trump's national security team.

"Our objective remains the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula", Mattis said.

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