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International relations

US and China trade barbs over South China Sea island-building

Chinese general fires back at Mattis as Vietnam blasts recent militarization

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis addresses the Shangri La Dialogue on June 2. (Photo by Simon Roughneen).

SINGAPORE-- After U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused China of "intimidation" and "coercion" in the disputed South China Sea on Saturday, a Chinese general responded by saying that "countries accusing China" are the ones causing tension in the region.

In an early morning speech in Singapore, Mattis said that "China's policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promises, it calls into question China's broader goals."

Mattis was speaking at the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual military conference staged by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research organization.

Responding later the same day, Lt. Gen. He Lei, head of the Chinese delegation attending the conference, said "China has resolve and capability to defend its sovereignty."

"Nansha Islands are the indisputable territory of China," He said, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys and defending Chinese construction on those disputed islands.

"Recently the United States, in disregard for the effects, hyped up so called militarization of the South China Sea and used it as an excuse to disinvite China from the Rimpac training exercise," he added, referring to the annual Rim of the Pacific naval exercise.

China recently landed bombers on disputed islands in the South China Sea for the first time and, as seen on satellite imagery, appears to have installed missiles on Woody Island, one of the disputed islands. 

In turn the U.S. has conducted so-called "freedom of navigation" operations, or FONOPS, in the sea, sailing close to Chinese-claimed islands, with the latest such operation held last Sunday.

Mattis warned China of unspecified "consequences" should it continue to militarize but added that he hoped for co-operation with Beijing "wherever possible."

Lt. Gen. He said that China's deployment of soldiers and weaponry to islands in the South China Sea "are a symbol of our sovereignty" and described FONOPS as "a challenge to China's sovereignty."

Warships and fighter jets of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea in April.   © Reuters

Several countries have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea and its islands, including the Philippines and Vietnam.

"Under no circumstances can anyone make excuses for deploying weapons in a disputed area," said Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich, addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Hanoi has increasingly sounded a lone regional voice against China's operations in the South China Sea, with the Philippines, a once-vocal claimant, reluctant to criticize Beijing since the election in 2016 of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Lt. Gen. Nguyen Duc Hai, director of the Institute for Defense Strategic Studies at Vietnam's Defense Ministry, said that "certain countries" were making "unjustified claims" to the South China Sea, which he referred to as the East Sea, the Vietnamese name for the sea.

 

Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich gives a speech on June 2, in which he said there is no excuse for "deploying weapons in a disputed area." (Photo by Simon Roughneen).

"Reclamation activity has been undertaken unilaterally ... disregarding international law," Hai added, a reference to China's extensive construction to expand islands in the sea, including in areas claimed by Vietnam.

The confluence of economic and military rivalries has left other countries in the region worried. "The great powers need to put aside egos," Ryamizard Ryacudu, Indonesia's defense minister, told delegates at the Singapore conference.

Relations between the U.S. and China are also on edge over trade, with the U.S. under President Donald Trump using the threat of tariffs to sway China into a more open economic relationship.

U.S. allies have also been targeted by the Trump administration's trade tactics, causing some policymakers to worry that the administration could alienate potential partners in Asia.

Mattis acknowledged that some of the recent moves by his country's government had been "unusual" but American lawmakers at the event expressed hope that trade disputes would not overshadow wider relationships.

"The values that underline our relationships are stronger than any decision on any one day," Mac Thornberry, a Republican congressman and chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

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