Mattis: U.S. Not Deterred by China from Freedom-of-Navigation Operations
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
ARLINGTON, Va. — The secretary of defense reaffirmed that the United States will continue freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPS) despite tensions with China in the South China Sea.
In a May 29 transcript of his news conference with reporters while en route to the change of command for the U.S. Pacific Command, James N. Mattis said, “there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them. But it’s international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. So we’ll continue that.”
Mattis noted that, in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in the Rose Garden at the White House his country would not be militarizing the Spratly Islands, one of the locations in the South China Sea built up with facilities by China and claimed by several nations in the region.
“We have seen the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” Mattis said.
China has stationed anti-ship missiles and anti-aircraft defenses, including surface-to-air missiles, on the disputed islands and has flown an H-6 bomber to one of the islands.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been disinvited from participation this year in the Rim of the Pacific exercises because of tensions, particularly in the South China Sea. The PLAN participated in 2014 and 2016.
“We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations,” Mattis said. “But we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue. Part of this is we maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific. We announce it through public affairs statements. Our partners and our allied nations are very open about it. So, when they do things that are opaque to the rest of us, then we cannot cooperate in areas that we would otherwise cooperate in.”
Asked about his plan made last year for FONOPS, Mattis affirmed that the United states was still on an even trajectory, “a very steady drumbeat of freedom-of-navigation operations.”