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Mattis vows continued confrontation with China over manmade islands in South China Sea

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Mar. 20, 2018. (U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense)
May 30, 2018

The U.S. plans to maintain a “steady drumbeat” of naval operations around the disputed South China Sea islands, and it will continue to confront China’s militarization of manmade islands in the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week.

“We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world,” Mattis told reporters Tuesday while traveling to Singapore, the Associated Press reported. “But we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue.”

“If you notice, there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them,” Mattis added, referring to China and its reaction to Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in international waters near the islands.

The most recent freedom of navigation operation took place this week.

Two U.S. Navy warships sailed in international waters past the disputed islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, drawing condemnation from the country.

The Higgins guided-missile destroyer and the guided-missile cruiser Antietam came within 12 miles of the Paracel Islands, a string of islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, Reuters reported in an exclusive on Monday.

The two warships carried out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands, one official told Reuters.

The maneuver was also seen as the United States’ latest operation contesting China’s claim to the South China Sea.

China’s Defense Ministry said it sent aircraft and ships to the U.S. warships telling them to leave.

In a statement, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang called on the U.S. to “immediately stop such provocative actions that encroach upon China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security.”

“China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend the country’s sovereignty and security,” China’s Foreign Ministry said.

Beijing has built a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea with radar facilities, air strips and military installations, which has increased speculation that China is building up its military on the islands. China claims its actions are only for defensive purposes.

China also recently installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three outposts in the disputed South China Sea.

The installment of missile systems would be the first of its kind in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where other nations – including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – dispute the territorial waters, CNBC reported.

China has denied the claim that it is militarizing the artificial islands in the South China Sea and that its development of the islands is for defensive purposes only.