Defense Secretary James Mattis has asserted that the US’s freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea which evoked strong protests from China would not be paused as it was being carried out as part of a strategy. “This (Freedom of Navigation exercise) is our policy. We will continue this,” Mattis told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing yesterday. “Could it change if circumstances change? Of course, but right now Secretary (of State, Rex) Tillerson and I give him the military factors — and we’re in league together on this, so I don’t think anything is going to change,” he said in response to a question. The US last month sent a navy warship near an artificial island in the disputed South China Sea as part of the first “freedom of navigation” operation under President Donald Trump, prompting the Chinese government to say that the “provocative action” violated its sovereignty. The guided-missile destroyer, USS Dewey, conducted a patrol within 20 kilometres of Mischeef Reef, part of the Spratly Islands over which several countries, including China, have competing claims.
Mattis said when he came to the Pentagon, he received, from the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff a recommendation to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea. “I was the one who rejected it and I said I want to see the plan for how we do this, not each one of them coming up as a stand alone. I wanted to see a strategy. He provided that on very short notice,” Mattis said. “I authorised the Freedom of Navigation — those voyages to continue and get underway and that’s what you saw was the first. Now there’s a programme inside a coherent strategy that support Secretary Tillerson’s view of foreign policy, engaging in that part of the world,” Mattis said. He made the remarks while responding to a question over the United States Navy not conducting a Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea for more than six months from October 2016 to May 2017.
“I’m glad that we’ve resumed them, but I worry about fits and starts and what kind of a signaling that sends about our resolve as China continues to violate and challenge international law,” said Senator Brian Schatz. The Defense Secretary also told Senators that the US is currently seeking assistance from China on the North Korea issue. “Right now, I think we are seeing assistance from China in dealing with this growing issue,” he said. “The military options are uniformly very, very tough. They’re very serious and the effort right now, led by secretary of State Tillerson, under the president’s direction, is to find a diplomatic solution, if there is anything along those lines possible. And it’s full effort on this by all the interagency working with Secretary Tillerson,” he said.