Mattis: US Will Confront China With "Steady Drumbeat" Of American Ships Over Weaponized Islands

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis vowed on Tuesday that American ships will continue to confront China over its militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea, where Beijing has established an extensive military presence despite its promise not to do so.

Mattis said that U.S. forces are maintaining a "steady drumbeat" of naval operations around the disputed Spratly islands, adding that "only one country" seems to be bothered by the maneuvers.

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. “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.”

Mattis's comments follow Beijing voicing "strong dissatisfaction" on Sunday after two US warships sailed past the Paracel Islands, which lie north of the Spratlys.

Reuters, citing anonymous sources, said the USS Higgins (DDG-76), a United States Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (flight II) and the USS Antietam (CG-54), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser of the United States Navy, came within 12 nautical miles of the heavily disputed, weaponized Paracel chain in the South China Sea.

“The U.S. military vessels carried out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels,” a source told Reuters.

The sources claim the passage had been planned month ago, as missions to sail warships around Beijing’s weaponized islands in the South China Sea have become more routine. Washington’s motive behind the operation is said to counter Beijing’s efforts to restrict freedom of navigation in critical shipping lanes around the islands.

The US Navy periodically conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the contested waterway, where it sails close to island features China has built into military facilities as a way of showing it rejects any territorial claims. -SCMP

"Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this," Mattis said. "The concerns have come to me not just from American government circles, but also from foreign nations that are concerned, very concerned about this continued militarisation of features in the South China Sea."

“You’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff [such operations] or state their resentment of them, but it’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we will continue that,” Mattis told reporters while flying to Hawaii to attend a change-of-command ceremony for the U.S. Pacific Command after Admiral Harry Davis was nominated to be the new ambassador to South Korea. He will be replaced by Admiral Philip Davidson. 

Tensions flare

Last week the Pentagon rescinded an invitation for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to take part in a multinational naval drill in the Pacific this summer, which has put military trust between both countries at a low heading into the second half of the year.

One of the Pentagon’s reasons behind disinviting the PLAN from the multinational naval exercises was due to reports that the military was again — secretly weaponizing its South China Sea islands. Satellite photographs taken on May 12 revealed surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missile units staged at Woody Island.

The satellite images taken in early May by Imagesat International show surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles on the northern shore of the Island, next to a radar system, all covered by a camouflage net. (ImageSat International)

In early May, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) for the first time landed several strategic bombers on the islands and reefs, some human-made, in the region where China is actively preparing for war.

In a statement, the Chinese Air Force said that “a division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.”

The spat with China comes at a sensitive time in international politics, as President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may finally hold their summit as early as June 12

Further inflaming the situation was the Tuesday announcement by the White House that it would be taking more steps to protect the intellectual property of U.S. companies by imposing 25% tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports. The list of affected goods will be announced on June 15. Meanwhile, the US will issue investment restrictions and export controls for Chinese groups and people on June 30.

  • WHITE HOUSE ISSUES STATEMENT ON STEPS TO PROTECT IP FROM CHINA
  • U.S. TO ANNOUNCE PROPOSED INVESTMENT RESTRICTIONS, ENHANCED EXPORT CONTROLS FOR CHINESE PEOPLE AND GROUPS BY JUNE 30

Once again, the US cited "national security" as the reason for the tariffs, which will impact "industrially significant technology, including those related to the 'Made in China 2025' program".

In short, as the United States embarks on a historic diplomatic mission in two weeks with North Korea - China's largest ally, US-China relations are sinking.