American Defense Secretary James Mattis joined other regional defense leaders at a meeting of the heads of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations on Sunday, wherein the defense officials had a “robust” exchange of views on security and stability in Asia. The brief meeting was held on the sidelines of the larger Shangri-La Dialogue Asia security conference being held in Singapore.

Mattis took the opportunity to discuss ongoing concerns maintained by the United States and its allies regarding nuclear and ballistic weapons programs in North Korea and the freedom of trade and transit throughout contested waterways like the South China Sea.

I note up front that in the security arena we have a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order.  This order, as we all know, is a product.  It’s a true product of so many nations’ efforts to create stability.  And these efforts, we must remind ourselves so we don’t take them for granted, these efforts grew out of lessons learned the hard way from an economic depression and catastrophic wars,” Mattis urged attendees.

China has been a particularly vocal critic of the United States in the Pacific, as America’s Navy serves as the primary force keeping Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea at bay.  The waterway serves as a vital shipping area for international commerce, seeing over $5 trillion worth of goods shipped though the region per year, and also harbors valuable natural resources like natural gas and fish.  As China has expanded its military equipment and personnel throughout the South China Sea, it has accused the United States of attempting to impose its will in the region though its own military presence.