Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday that the U.S. will continue to challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by maintaining a “steady drumbeat” of naval operations there.
His comments came amid Beijing’s militarization of the contested waters and “firm opposition” to the two U.S. Navy ships which sailed within 12 nautical miles of four artificial islands in the disputed Paracel island chain, east of Vietnam, CNN reports.
Mattis told reporters that the South China Sea was international waters where freedom of navigation, which China opposes, needs to be maintained.
“There’s a very steady drumbeat of freedom of navigation operations … You’ll notice there is only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them,” he said.
However, the Chinese government continues to claim a large portion of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, installing radar facilities and airstrips on contested islands and reefs. This, Mattis pointed out, was in clear violation of the Chinese president’s promise about its militarizing actions there.
“He[Xi Jinping] stated that they would not be militarizing the islands, we have seen in the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” the defense secretary noted.
According to Reuters, officials at the Pentagon have long been critical of China’s actions in the disputed islands, maintaining that the Chinese government has been using the islands to gather intelligence.
Earlier this month, China landed and tested nuclear-capable bombers on their artificial islands, while satellite images showed that several weeks earlier it had deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody Island.
“When they (Chinese) do things that are opaque to the rest of us, then we cannot cooperate in areas that we would otherwise cooperate in,” Mattis said, most likely referring to the United States’ decision to rescind an invitation to the Chinese military to participate in maritime exercises in the Pacific as a result of its actions in the South China Sea.