U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis blasted China for “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea and strongly endorsed the “Quad” security grouping of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan as a way to bolster peace and openness in the Indo-Pacific.
Speaking at an international security forum in Singapore, Mattis rebuked China’s military build-up in the disputed waters, warning of increasingly severe consequences should the rising Asian power fail to work collaboratively with neighbouring countries. The rhetoric was strong by Mattis but a thinly veiled threat was also leveled at Chinese activities by Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, who when asked about America’s ability to “blow apart” one of China’s artificial islands, told reporters
I would just tell you that the United States military has a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands.”
On Saturday Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue that the recent decision to eject China from the Rim of the Pacific multilateral naval exercise was an initial and “relatively small” consequence of Beijing’s escalating activities in the South China Sea, which he said were a breach of a 2015 commitment by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize island features in the territory. Mattis said in his address,
China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island. 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.”
Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne told the Dialogue:
Nations must also have the right to be free from coercion or criticism when they lawfully and reasonably communicate objections about the behaviour of other nations. This extends to the reasonable expectation that rules, not the exercise of power, govern our actions.”
In addition to the thinly veiled reference to China’s actions, Payne encouraged ongoing American engagement in the region and called on nations involved in the South China Sea dispute to comply with international law. She said Australia welcomed a prosperous China “constructively engaged in global affairs” and that China was needed to address North Korea and climate change.
In an appearance largely focused on mapping out the Trump administration’s intentions in the Indo-Pacific, Mattis backed the Quadrilateral security dialogue that includes the U.S., Australia, India and Japan — regarded as an initiative aimed at balancing China. He said the countries shared democratic values and the group was a mechanism focused on maintaining stability, open navigation and peaceful dispute resolution. “And I think it’s absolutely an idea fit for its time and I support it 100 per cent,” he told the audience.
Mattis also warned of “much larger consequences in the future when nations lose the rapport of their neighbors , including through piling “mountainous debts” on other countries, a reference to China’s growth in development loans, particularly under Mr Xi’s much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative. “There are consequences that will come home to roost, so to speak, with China if they do not find a way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations who have interests,” Mattis declared.
Though a security centered conference, economic concerns cannot and should not be divorced from the larger security picture.
Mattis added later, “Certainly nations can actually lose their freedom simply by taking what appears to be a hand-up when in fact its a hand-out that makes them dependant.”
The discussion involving China and the ratcheting up of U.S. rhetoric against their moves continues. On many fronts, the perceived Cold War between the U.S. and China continues to get colder by the day.
Featured Image: U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivers his speech during the first plenary session of the 17th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Asia, in Singapore, Saturday, June 2, 2018, in Singapore. | AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim