WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis said U.S. ships will maintain a “steady drumbeat” of sailings through the South China Sea and any other important waterway to support the principle of open seas and free navigation.
Mattis also told reporters that the sailings over the weekend were meant to send a signal to China as it increases its militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea it created as well as the natural island it claims along with other nations.
“They’re freedom of navigation operations. And you’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them. But it’s international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. So we’ll continue that,” Mattis told reporters.
Over the weekend the U.S. sent the USS Higgins, a guided-missile destroyer, and USS Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, to the South China Sea. Both sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Triton, Lincoln, Tree and Woody islands, all part of the Parcel Islands cluster.
In response, China sent two ships to warm off the U.S. ships. Chinese officials also voiced protests.
Mattis’ remarks were more direct in linking the sailings of the U.S. ships as a response to China’s militarization than the more general responses of Pentagon officials over the past few days.
“We have seen the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” Mattis told reporters. “We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world. 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 is on a trip to various Pacific locations and spoke to the pool reporters traveling with him. Those remarks are shared with other journalists who are part of the pool, including Talk Media News.
Mattis said the U.S. will remain transparent about military activity out in the Pacific to make sure all see and understand the actions.
“We don’t hide it from anyone. We announce it through public affairs statements. The nations, our partner and our allied nations, are very open about it. So when they do things that are opaque to the rest of us, we can’t cooperate in areas that we would otherwise cooperate in,” Mattis told reporters.
Woody Island is one of the man-made redoubts, and recently hosted flights from China’s long-range bombers.
The Spratly and Paracel island chains are in the middle of international shipping lanes, with an estimated $6 trillion in trade carried by ships each year through those waters. There are multiple territorial claims from Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam on the islands. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite those counterclaims.
The Pentagon disinvited China last week from a major U.S.-hosted naval cooperative drill, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, because of its increased militarization of the Paracel and Spratly islands. That includes deploying anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems, electronic jammers, submarines and troops to the islands, the Pentagon has said.