Mattis signals U.S. will challenge Beijing in South China Sea

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The usually mild-mannered U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had strong words for Beijing in response to a recent confrontation in the South China Sea, as reported by the Wall Street Journal (paywall), calling China “out of step with international law” in its militarization of claimed islands.

Mattis also “recalled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge not to militarize” disputed South China Sea islands, and said, “We have seen in the last month, they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before.” Mattis’s remarks come after multiple confrontations between Beijing and other countries:

  • In April, China sent ships and aircraft to confront three Australian naval vessels headed for Vietnamese ports, the New York Times reports (paywall).
  • Beijing also sent ships to confront U.S. vessels conducting “freedom of navigation operations” within 12 miles of the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands, the Times says. This action prompted Washington to withdraw China’s invitation to participate in Rimpac, a biennial joint military exercise.
  • A Chinese H-6K bomber landed on Woody Island in the Paracels earlier this month, at the same time that missiles and radar equipment were sent to other islands in the region, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
  • On May 11, a Chinese helicopter flew “dangerously close” to a Philippine naval vessel that was delivering supplies to Filipino Marines in contested territory, the Associated Press reports.

The United States claims that it has a right to conduct “freedom of navigation operations” under international law. Mattis underscored that, although the United States is conducting these operations, the U.S. is not their sole beneficiary, stating, “A lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. So we will continue that.”