Singapore: China's placement of weapons systems on man-made islands in the South China Sea is designed to intimidate and coerce other countries in the region, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Saturday. Mattis' statement laid out a sharp criticism of Beijing and threatened larger consequences if militarisation continues.
The Pentagon leader's comments at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue came in the wake of a tumultuous few weeks between the US and China. He warned that America's recent move to disinvite China from a multinational naval exercise called Rim of the Pacific was an "initial response" to the militarisation of the islands. It was, he said, a "relatively small consequence, I believe there are much larger consequences in the future."
China's approach "is not a way to make long-term collaboration the rule of the road in a region that's important to China's future," Mattis said, when asked to elaborate more on the consequences. "There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost, so to speak, with China, if they don't find a way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations who have interests."
The US, he said, remains committed to ensuring free and open transit in the region, adding that he doesn't believe that China's actions will pay off. Militarising the islands, Mattis said, will not enhance China's standing in the world.
"Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion," Mattis said, referring to the recent deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and other equipment on the Spratly Islands, and the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.
Mattis also struck at one of the key disputes between the US and China, telling the conference that America will continue to provide defence equipment and services to Taiwan. China claims that the self-governing island of Taiwan is their territory, to be brought under their control by force if necessary.
However, Mattis noted that the US welcomed co-operation with China "wherever possible," and announced that he has accepted Beijing's invitation to visit there soon. It remains to be seen if that invitation will stand after this conference, with his comments triggering an equally pointed reaction from a Chinese official at the meeting.
Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo said a US move a couple years ago to send two warships into China's "territorial waters" was a violation of the law and an "obvious provocation to China's national security and territorial integrity."
Mattis responded that the question reflected a fundamental disconnect with the way international tribunals have spoken on the matter.
"We do not see it as a militarisation by going through what has traditionally been an international water space," said Mattis of the US ship movements through the South China Sea. "What we see it as, is a reaffirmation of the rules-based order."
In recent years, the US has sought to stabilize military relations with China, but the militarisation of the islands has been a persistent point of conflict. Many nations fear that Beijing will use the construction on the islands to extend its military reach and potentially try to restrict navigation in the South China Sea.
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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2018 11:35:50 IST