On Sunday, the U.S. Navy conducted freedom of navigation operations in the disputed South China Sea, sparking an angry response from Beijing who voiced its “strong dissatisfaction” with the moves. Never one to shy away from his thoughts on an issue, Secretary of Defense James Mattis vowed on Tuesday that the U.S. would keep confronting China over its aggressive territorial claims. Mattis told reporters as he flew to Hawaii,
You’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff [such operations] or state their resentment of them, but it’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we will continue that,”
U.S. freedom of navigation maneuvers are not a new occurrence for the U.S. Navy, who often sails close to Chinese man made islands in the region as a rejection to China’s continued buildup in the contested waterway. Mattis said,
We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world, but we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law.”
Sunday’s operation was conducted just over a week after Beijing flew nuclear-capable bombers to a disputed island, drawing immediate criticism from the U.S. Then last week, the Pentagon pulled its invitation to China to join maritime exercises in the Pacific over Beijing’s “continued militarization” of the South China Sea.
Beijing has been building artificial islands to reinforce its claim over most of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite protests from several Southeast Asian countries. Its neighbors, particularly some of those involved in maritime disputes over the waters, have expressed fears China could eventually restrict freedom of navigation and overflight. Mattis said,
Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this. The concerns have come to me not just from American government circles, but also from foreign nations that are concerned, very concerned about this continued militarization of features in the South China Sea.”
Mattis was heading to Hawaii to attend a change-of-command ceremony for the U.S. military’s Pacific Command.
The current head, Admiral Harry Harris, has been nominated to be the new ambassador to South Korea. He will be replaced by Admiral Philip Davidson. Mattis is then due to attend a regional security conference in Singapore — one at which China will likely continue flexing its growing muscle.
A last point when considering any news regarding China — the Chinese do not separate out trade and economics from military moves and diplomacy when it comes to national security. Rather than take each one of these issues as some individual and unrelated action, be assured that China has a larger strategic framework in mind at all times.
Featured Image: Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks about the National Defense Review, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington. China’s expanding military and an increasingly aggressive Russia are among the U.S. military’s top national security priorities, the Pentagon said Friday. | AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin