The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics -

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.

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