MATTIS ON CHINA
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this week defended the Navy’s latest freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea that drew the ire of Beijing.
“FONOPs — they’re freedom of navigation operations, and you’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them,” Mr. Mattis told reporters en route to Hawaii for a Pacific Command change-of-command ceremony. “But it’s international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we’ll continue that.”
Mr. Mattis noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping promised in 2015 during a White House meeting with President Obama that Beijing would not militarize disputed islands in the South China Sea.
“We have seen [in] the last month, they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” he said.
In recent weeks, the Chinese military has deployed surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship missiles on the Spratly Islands. Beijing’s military also flew nuclear-capable bombers to the disputed islands.
The United States seeks to cooperate with Pacific nations, but “we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue. And part of this is we maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific,” he said.
Asked if the United States would conduct more robust naval and air operations in response to the Chinese military activities in the South China Sea, Mr. Mattis said: “I generally don’t talk about future activities or actions. Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this, and they are remaining so.”
But the retired Marine Corps general also said he has been hearing concerns about Chinese maritime militarization from American government officials as well as foreign nations that he said are “very concerned about this continuing militarization of features in the South China Sea.”
Two Navy warships, the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.
The Chinese Defense Ministry denounced the operation and claimed in a statement that the actions violated Chinese territorial sovereignty. China sent two warships to warn the ships away. A Pentagon official denied that the U.S. warships were driven from the sea.
Mr. Mattis announced on last Wednesday in Honolulu that the Pacific Command is being renamed the Indo-Pacfic Command to better reflect the command’s reach into the Pacific and Indian oceans.