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U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

Mattis urges China to act on North Korea threat

US defense secretary calls for defeat of extremists in Iraq, Syria, Southeast Asia

SINGAPORE -- James Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary, urged China to act against North Korea's nuclear program, describing the Kim Jong Un regime as a "clear and present danger" to U.S. national security.

Mattis also spoke to the threat of terrorism in Asia. "We must defeat extremist organizations wherever they attempt to establish roots -- not just in Iraq and Syria, but also here in Southeast Asia", he said.

Speaking at the 16th Asia Security Summit, which is commonly referred to as the Shangri-La Dialogue and organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, Mattis reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Asia, and fended off concerns that the U.S. plans to withdraw from its regional leadership role.

Mattis quoted President Xi Jinping of China's call in April for all sides to "live up to their responsibilities" to resolve issues on the Korean peninsula. "Those words must be followed by actions," Mattis said on Saturday morning. It is "imperative that all countries do their part to fulfill their obligations and work together to support our shared goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula".

The nuclear ambitions of North Korea coupled with development of ballistic missiles pose "direct and immediate threats to our regional allies, partners, and all the world", he said, describing the regime's actions as "manifestly illegal under international law".

"We will take further steps to protect the U.S. homeland," he said, describing the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea and Japan as "ironclad".

Mattis gave reassurance that U.S. regional engagement remains firm, countering concerns about the Trump administration's possible intentions. He spoke of an "enduring commitment" to the security and prosperity of Asia "based on strategic interests and on shared values of free people, free markets, and a strong and vibrant economic partnership".

"We will still be there and we will be there with you," he said when asked if President Trump is committed to a rules-based world order. "I can give you absolute optimism on this issue," he said.

Mattis however dismissed the possibility that the U.S. is returning to Trans-Pacific Partnership trade arrangements. "It's going to be a fresh approach", he said. Early in his presidency, Trump ditched the U.S.-led 12-nation Asia-Pacific proposed trade pact drawn up under the previous administration.

Mattis was also clear on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. "We cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order," he said.

"We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo," he said. "We will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond."

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also urged China to act responsively on issues such as the Korean Peninsula in a speech on Friday evening. "[China] has no better or more urgent opportunity to build [the] trust than to use its great leverage, and honor the responsibility with which it comes, to curb the unlawful, reckless, and dangerous conduct of North Korea", he said. "Maintaining the rule of law in our region, respecting the sovereignty of nations large and small, is the key to continuing peace and stability."

"The rule-based regional order is under challenge", said Tomomi Inada, Japan's defense minister, in her speech. "Without the conscious, continued efforts of all nations and cooperation among them to validate these rules, they will hollow out." Inada expressed deep concern about freedom of navigation and overflight in disputed waters.

While China was as always a major topic of conversation at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the world's second largest economy was again weakly represented. There had been rumors that Defense Minister Chang Wanquan would attend, but China's delegation was led by Lieutenant General He Lei, a vice president of the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science.

Addressing the threat of terrorism in Asia, Mattis called for tighter international cooperation. "Together we must act now to prevent this threat from growing, otherwise it will place long-term regional security at risk and stunt regional economic dynamism," he said.

The point resonated among attendees from Southeast Asia given the recent activities in the Philippines of a militant group linked to Islamic State. Singapore's Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said that if the situation in Malawi, a city in Mindanao in the southern Philippines, is allowed to "escalate or entrench" it will pose long-term problems for the 10-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "All of us recognize that, if not addressed adequately, it can prove a pulling ground for would-be Jihadists", he said.

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