US defence secretary Jim Mattis turned up the heat on North Korea and its main benefactor China on Saturday, calling the North Koreans a “clear and present danger” and chastising the Chinese for coercive behaviour in the South China Sea.
His sharp words for both countries suggest he believes China will, out of self-interest, exert leverage on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programmes even as Washington pushes Beijing to change course in the South China Sea.
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, Mattis said the Donald Trump administration is encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to working with the US and others to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. He also said he thinks China ultimately will see it as a liability rather than an asset.
China blocked tough new sanctions against North Korea that the United States pushed in the UN Security Council on Friday. However, the Security Council did vote unanimously to add 15 individuals and four entities linked to the North’s nuclear and missile programs to a UN sanctions blacklist.
In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mattis sought to balance his hopeful comments on China with sharp criticism of what he called Beijing’s disregard for international law by its “indisputable militarisation” of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“We oppose countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law,” he said. “We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the house armed services committee, told a news conference later that he believed Mattis had effectively stressed the U.S. commitment to allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
“He was very clear, very strong,” said Thornberry, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation on an Asia tour and attended Saturday’s Singapore conference.
Overall, Mattis’ speech struck a positive, hopeful tone for cooperation and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, where he and his predecessors have made it a priority to nurture and strengthen alliances and partnerships.
“While competition between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable,” he said. “Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. We will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause.”