US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that the United States would continue to confront what Washington sees as China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, despite drawing condemnation from Beijing for an operation in the region over the weekend.
Reuters first reported that two US Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China on Sunday, even as President Donald Trump seeks Chinese cooperation on North Korea.
The operation, known as “freedom of navigation,” was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.
China expressed its anger, saying it had sent ships and aircraft to warn the US warships to leave.
“You’ll notice there is only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment (to) them, but it’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation,” Mattis told reporters while en route to Hawaii, where he will oversee a change of command for US Pacific Command.
While the Sunday operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a particularly sensitive time and just days after the Pentagon disinvited China from a major US-hosted naval drill.