SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called out China for militarizing “artificial features” in the South China Sea — a dig at China’s placing weapons on disputed land features that China has turned into islands.
Mattis made the remarks at the annual Shangri La Dialogue, where more than 750 delegates from about 40 countries are gathered to discussed regional security issues.
“We are prepared to support China’s choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region,” Mattis said. “Yet China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals.”
“China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island,” he said.
Mattis said, despite China’s claims, the placement of those weapons is “tied directly to the military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.”
He evoked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise not to militarize the South China Sea land features in 2015.
“China’s militarization of the Spratlys is also in direct contradiction to President Xi’s public assurances in the White House Rose Garden that they would not do this,” he said.
Mattis also warned there would be “consequences” to China “ignoring the international community.”
“I believe there are much larger consequences in the future,” he added.
The remarks were a clear shot to China, who sent a delegation to the conference and whose representatives were in attendance for the speech. For decades, U.S. officials have tried to treat China sensitively, in line with the importance Chinese officials place on “saving face.”
Mattis ended his speech by taking more digs at China: “The U.S. offers strategic partnerships — not strategic dependence.”
“For as President Trump said in Da Nang, we will never ask our partners to surrender their sovereignty or intellectually property. We don’t dream of domination.”
This was Mattis’s second time attending the Shangri La Dialogue as defense secretary. In his speech last year, his emphasis was on listening to allies and reassuring them that the U.S. would remain in the region.