WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Trump administration's top war-fighters, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford faced questions about their FY2019 defense budget request, the possible military response to alleged chemical attacks in Syria and other subjects. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis © Getty

Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, has attacked Beijing for its militarisation of the contested South China Sea and “intimidation and coercion” of Asian nations, warning that its actions call into question President Xi Jinping’s “broader goals”. 

Mr Mattis said on Saturday that Beijing’s deployment of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, as well as electronic jammers, on man-made islands in the South China Sea undermined President Xi’s commitment during a White House meeting in 2015 not to militarise the Spratly islands. 

“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purpose of intimidation and coercion,” he said in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asia-Pacific security forum organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. 

China has long argued that its growing military investments and its uncompromising stance in the South China Sea are defensive in nature, while the US and some south-east Asian nations have warned that Beijing is seeking to intimidate and undermine international law.

In response to China’s deployment of military assets in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, Washington last week revoked an invitation to Beijing to attend a large naval exercise. 

Mr Mattis admitted that this was a “relatively small consequence” for China but warned of “much larger” consequences should Beijing continue to upset the established order. 

He also criticised President Xi’s signature Belt and Road Infrastructure Initiative, warning that Beijing would alienate Asian nations if its projects leave partner countries with “mountainous debts” that will reduce their “freedom of political action”. 

“Eventually these things do not pay off even if on the financial ledger sheet or the power ledger sheet they appear to,” he said. 

Beijing has dismissed the US attacks on its South China Sea policy as “ridiculous”, accusing the US of militarising the disputed waters through its regular freedom of navigation operations, sailing close to man-made islands controlled by China. 

But Mr Mattis rejected China’s position, insisting that the US was acting to uphold international law and freedom of navigation “for all nations, large and small”. 

He said he would be travelling to Beijing later this month for talks with his Chinese counterparts about the growing differences between the world’s two biggest economies.

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