US Defense Secretary James Mattis said diplomatic efforts should be exhausted to find a solution of South China Sea dispute. Mattisâ€™ stand is in contrast to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who appeared to advocate a tougher action to resolve maritime issue. Last month, Tillerson said the US should send a clear signal that further island-building should stop, and that Chinaâ€™s future access to those islands was also not going to be allowed. But defense secretaryâ€™s statement over East China Sea and deployment of US missile defense system in South Korea ruffled feathers in Beijing.
Mattis stressed that the freedom of navigation remained absolute and that all nations should play by the rules. Mattis, who was on a visit to Japan and Korea, accused China of shredding the trust of its neighbours.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing territorial claims to the South China Sea. Beijing claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, where it has constructed features on seven rocks and reefs and installed military facilities. The US has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them â€˜freedom of navigationâ€™ operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes. An estimated $5 trillion worth of goods are transported through South China Sea shipping lanes each year.
Mattis reaffirmed the longstanding US position over East China Sea islands dispute. The US maintains that the islands are administered by Japan and are therefore covered by the US-Japan security treaty. He further said that Trump administration would stick to the US stance that the US-Japan security treaty applies to defending Japanâ€™s continued administration of the Senkaku islands.
The islands that lie between Taiwan and Okinawa were under US administration from the end of World War II until their return to Japan in 1972. China cites historical records for its claim, and Japanâ€™s move to nationalize several of the islands in 2012 set off anti-Japanese riots in China and prompted the government to dispatch ships and planes to the area around them as a challenge to Japanese control.
Beijing blasted US-Japan alliance as a result of the Cold War after Mattis met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the Diaoyu islands have been a Chinese territory in history. He urged the United States to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong comments on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu islands to avoid further complication of related issues and avoid bringing regional instability.
China also registered its displeasure with Mattisâ€™ remarks in South Korea that Trumpâ€™s administration is committed to deploy a high-end US missile defense system to South Korea. The US said that THAAD will improve protection of South Korea and Japan against a North Korean missile attack. Beijing objects to the system because its powerful radar would allow it to peer deep into northeastern China, possibly allowing it to observe Chinese military movements.
The deployment will jeopardize security and the strategic interests of regional countries, including China, and undermine the strategic balance in the region. This will lead to further turbulence in relations with the US under Trump. The new US President already sparked anger among Chinese by talking on the phone with the president of Taiwan and accusations of currency manipulation and unfair trade policies. It is in everybodyâ€™s interest to resolve the maritime dispute without any escalation in the region.