In a major address outlining America’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, Defense secretary James Mattis savaged Beijing for militarizing a sprawl of fake islands in the South China Sea and said the White House remains committed to denuclearizing North Korea.
Speaking before a packed audience at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore Saturday morning, the former four-star Marine general blueprinted America’s “Look West” goals in a region stretching from Alaska and the South Pole to the Indian Ocean: freedom of navigation for airplanes and ships, prosperity through peace, increased American investment in economies and civil societies, a steadfast commitment to international law, cooperation with China when possible and repercussions for Beijing when it fails to comply with global norms.
“So make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay,” Mattis said. “This is our priority theater. Our interests and the region’s are inextricably intertwined.”
Mattis said that the “principled realism” of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy anticipated intensifying competition between nation states but held out hope that this generation of statesmen in the Indo-Pacific region will avoid war with China and North Korea.
While word swirled through the conference room that the Trump administration will salvage a proposed summit next week in Singapore with the regime of Pyongyang strongman Kim Jong Un, Mattis vowed that America would hold the line on North Korea.
Although Trump has hinted at cuts to America’s troop levels in South Korea, Mattis declared that the issues aren’t related and that commitment to Seoul won’t be scrapped during a summit with enemy Pyongyang.
“Our objective remains the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mattis said. “The international community is in alignment here, as evidenced by multiple, unanimous United Nations Security council resolutions.”
Mattis fired most of his verbal volleys at China.
He expressed support for Taiwan, a nation Beijing views as a renegade breakaway republic, saying that America would “oppose all unilateral efforts to alter the status quo and will continue to insist any resolution of differences accord with the wishes of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
Mattis said that Washington was prepared to support China’s choices “if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region” but Beijing’s policy in the South China Sea stood “in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes.”
“It calls into question China’s broader goals,” Mattis said. “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 weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.”
Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are opposed by Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Mattis called out Chinese president Xi Jinping for falsely promising in 2015 that Beijing would never militarize the Spratly Islands, which are occupied by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and China.
He said that America booted Beijing’s navy from the upcoming Rim of the Pacific military maneuvers because “China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles of purposes of the RIMPAC exercise, one in which transparency and cooperation are hallmarks.”
“To be clear, we do not ask any country to choose between the U.S. and China, because a friend does not demand you choose among them,” Mattis continued. “China should and does have a voice in shaping the international system. And all of China’s neighbors have a voice in shaping China’s role.”
After the address, a member of the Chinese delegation to the security summit, Senior Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo of the People’s Liberation Army shot back at Mattis, telling him that recent freedom of navigation operations by American warships sailing near the disputed islands were provocations that violated Chinese law by trespassing on Beijing’s territorial waters.
Mattis chided China for a “fundamental disconnect” between Beijing’s actions and international tribunals that have ruled against Chinese occupations of the disputed islands.
He told the Chinese officials that American warships skirt the islands as a way to show support to all nations, big and small, that use the waterways as commercial sea lanes.
When asked by others in the audience whether the words uttered by Mattis conflicted with Trump’s actions — especially unilateral tariffs unleashed by the White House on Canada, India and other friends of the United States — Mattis conceded that outsiders sometimes detect “unusual ways” from the president and his team.
But he believes America’s overwhelming commitment to shared principles with Asian powers, including serving as the “arsenal of democracy” against fascist and communist domination, will outlast temporary differences over trade.
“The bottom line is that we’ve been through thick and thin and we’ve stood with nations and they all recognized today that we believe in free, independent and sovereign nations out here,” Mattis said.
Questions continue to dog Mattis — long seen as a nonpartisan military mind — and his future serving a president that’s viewed by international critics as headstrong and often ignorant about global partnerships and problems, but he deflected them.
“I also look forward to the future with confidence and I’m doing just fine, thank you,” he said.
Mattis is slated to continue closed door sessions Saturday with defense ministers Song Young-moo of South Korea, retired Maj. Gen. Delfin Negrillo Lorenzana of the Philippines, Itsunori Onodera of Japan and Marise Payne of Australia.
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