Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#443】Mattis’s Uncompromising Attitude towards China

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2017.06.07 (Wed)

June 5, 2017

     A speech by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Asia Security Summit (the Shangri-La Dialogue) in Singapore on June 3 was significant in that it declared the Trump administration, while requesting China’s cooperation in blocking North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and missiles, would not yield American basic position to China on other key regional issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Criticizing Chinese behavior in the South China Sea
     As a matter of course, Mattis first took up North Korea’s nuclear and missile development as “a clear and present danger.” However, he did not take any low profile in asking for China’s help in leading North Korea to give up on nuclear and missile development. While quoting Chinese President Xi Jinping as telling U.S. President Donald Trump in April “only if all sides live up to their responsibilities […] can the nuclear issues on the [Korean] Peninsula be resolved as quickly as possible,” Mattis noted that “those words must be followed by actions.” He thus used strong language to urge China to take actions to toughen sanctions on North Korea.
     “While North Korea is an urgent military threat, we must not lose sight of other strategic challenges to regional peace and prosperity,” Mattis said, bluntly criticizing China for constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea. “We cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order… Artificial-island construction and indisputable militarization of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability.”
     In late May, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China on Mischief Reef of the Spratly Islands without any prior notification to China, representing the first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) under the Trump administration. In the operation, unlike four previous operations in the South China Sea under the Obama administration, the guided missile destroyer in what could be claimed by China as its territorial waters conducted a rescue drill similar to what is usually done on high seas, clarifying a U.S. stance that China cannot expand its territorial waters by constructing artificial islands. In his speech on June 3, Mattis vowed to continue to conduct the FONOP.
     Mattis also said, “We will not use our allies and partners, or the capabilities integral to their security, as bargaining chips.” The remark amounted to a U.S. pledge not to cut any deal with China at cost of security for U.S. allies and partners and should be welcomed by Japan and other U.S. allies and friends in the region.

Continuing to cooperate with Taiwan
     Another point to notice in the speech was that Mattis cited Taiwan in addition to India, Vietnam and Singapore when vowing to continue engagement with partners. “The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in our Taiwan Relations Act.”
     It was unusual for a U.S. defense secretary to discuss defense cooperation with Taiwan in public while putting Taiwan in the position of an ordinary U.S. partner. In response to a question from a Chinese military officer in the audience who did not fail to pay attention to the remark, Mattis said there was no change in the United States’ “One China” policy. However, the remark can be interpreted as a strong message to China that the Trump administration would not tolerate China’s military intimidation to Taiwan now governed by Democratic Progressive Party known for its aspirations of independence from China.

Yasushi Tomiyama is Senior Fellow and Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.