US Defence Secretary James Mattis has warned that the Pentagon will not accept China’s militarisation of man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Speaking at a security conference in Singapore, he said such moves undermined stability in the region, with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries laying claim to parts of the strategically important waters.
On a more conciliatory note, General Mattis praised Beijing’s efforts to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes.
His words came hard on the heels of UN Security Council’s agreement to expand targeted sanctions against North Korea in response to its recent missile tests. Yesterday, the council voted unanimously to back the sanctions after weeks of negotiations between the US and China.
In his speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue forum, General Mattis said: “We oppose countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims.
“We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
Speaking at his nomination hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the USA was “going to have to send China a clear signal that first the island-building stops, and second your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
In response, the Chinese foreign ministry said it would “remain firm to defend its rights in the region”.
However, in Singapore General Mattis struck a more positive note on US-China relations, saying that while competition between the two countries was “bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable”.
Ownership of the South China Sea has been a source of dispute for centuries, but these ancient tensions have increased in recent years.
In particular, Beijing has been building artificial islands on reefs and carrying out naval patrols in waters claimed by other nations.
Washington, under the Barack Obama administration, insisted it was neutral on the issue, but spoke out strongly against the island-building and conducted numerous “freedom of navigation” patrols in the area.
President Duterte has also backed off from the arbitration, favouring improved diplomatic relations with Beijing. Before his election, however, he vowed to ride a jet ski to the disputed region and plant the Philippine flag.