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Mattis Accuses Beijing of ‘Intimidation and Coercion’ in South China Sea

Posted June 2, 2018 12:15 a.m. EDT

SINGAPORE — U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis harshly criticized the Chinese government on Saturday for its continuing militarization of a string of islands in the South China Sea, calling the new presence of advanced military equipment and missiles there a flagrant show of military power.

“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 during a speech Saturday at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security conference.

Mattis recently disinvited the Chinese military from a large, multinational naval exercise this summer due in part to China’s positioning of those weapons, including anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, on the Spratly Islands.

China’s activities, Mattis said, are “in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes,” calling into question “China’s broader goals.”

Mattis’ remarks come as the United States tries to navigate increased tensions with Beijing, even as the Trump administration seeks Chinese help in curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The Chinese military participated in the multinational exercise, called the Rim of the Pacific, in 2014 and 2016. Mattis called the move to withdraw the invitation an “initial response,” without specifying what additional moves the United States might be considering. He added that he was open to cooperation with China “wherever possible.”

“The U.S. will continue to pursue a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China,” Mattis said, “competing vigorously where we must.”

On Sunday, two U.S. warships sailed within 12 miles of islands in the South China Sea in an attempt to assert the U.S. stance on freedom of navigation in international waters. China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, in defiance of international norms.

Mattis tried to reassure allies in the region that the United States was committed to handling both China’s rapid expansion and the threat from North Korea.

“We are focused on modernizing our alliance with both the Republic of Korea and Japan, transforming these critical alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Mattis said, using South Korea’s formal name.

He also said the United States would continue to support Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its territory, with military and other assistance.

Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a former deputy assistant for national security affairs, said that Mattis’ speech was probably meant to ease U.S. allies’ concerns not just about regional threats but also about President Donald Trump’s oft-changing foreign policy.

“They don’t know what’s coming next,” Friedberg said. “There’s not much people even at Mattis’ levels can do about it.”

Mattis said little about North Korea in his speech, which came just hours after Trump said that the June 12 talks in Singapore with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, were back on. He said America’s goal remained the “irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

In response to a question, Mattis added that U.S. troop levels in South Korea would not be on the agenda for the summit talks.