Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pulled no punches against China during a college graduation speech he delivered Friday morning.
When describing threats the young Naval War College graduates would face, Mattis mentioned China’s “long-term designs” to rewrite the existing global order.
“The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model,” he began, “demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing.”
The Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644 AD, was a period of ambitious naval expansion that ended in overextension and ruin.
According to History.com, China launched “ambitious flotillas to expand the Chinese tribute system to other countries, sending ships to India, the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa.”
It started off well enough, with China exporting silk and welcoming a European presence in China. However, it also brought on “enormous fiscal problems that resulted in calamitous collapse.”
“Military campaigns had also become a significant drain on the empire’s purse,” according to History.com. The last Ming emperor committed suicide in 1642.
Mattis continued, criticizing China for “espousing One Belt, One Road, when this diverse world has many belts and many roads.”
China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative provides developing nations with massive amounts of money to build infrastructure. In some cases where the country has been unable to meet China’s stiff repayment terms, China has seized control over the infrastructure, such as with a port in Sri Lanka.
Mattis also hit China for “attempting to replicate on the international stage their authoritarian domestic model, militarizing South China Sea features while using predatory economics of piling massive debt on others.”
China has embarked on an ambitious naval buildup, and within the last few months have deployed missiles to South China Sea land features, despite pledging to the U.S. in 2015 that it would not.
China has built those land features into islands and has begun using them to stage military gear, though multiple nations claim ownership of those features.
During a regional security defense forum this month, Mattis blasted China’s militarization of “artificial” land features and warned there would be consequences if China did not change its behavior.
Last month, he disinvited China from participating in the world’s largest international maritime naval exercise, Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), which is led by the U.S.
He also announced that U.S. Pacific Command, the military’s headquarters overseeing the Asia Pacific region, was being renamed “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command” to reflect the growing significance of the Indian Ocean and India, a democracy the U.S. sees as a counterweight to China.
Mattis has said he does not seek confrontation with China but that China must adhere to international rules and norms that the rest of the nations in the region follow.
“After World War II, our Greatest Generation, in collaboration with our allies and partners, built the open international order that has benefited global prosperity,” he said Friday, adding, “It’s unrealistic to believe, today, that China will not seek to replicate its internal authoritarian model elsewhere, as it expands globally.”
“China has benefited enormously from the open international order, but it had no say in drafting it,” he said. “Today, how we engage with China and how the Chinese choose to collaborate by it dictates to the world that it will provide the roadmap for our future relationship.”
The Trump National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy released this year identifies China as a great power competitor, one that openly seeks to replace the U.S. as the world’s superpower by 2050.