Mattis May Be Much Tougher On China Than His Public Comments Suggest

REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The secretary of defense reportedly distrusts China and is willing to challenge it if necessary.

During his recent visit to Tokyo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly emphasized “diplomacy” over “dramatic military moves” in the South China Sea, but he allegedly made much more forceful comments in private, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Japanese counterpart Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, Mattis said that the U.S. should use diplomacy to contribute to the resolution of regional disputes.

“What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly, and maintain open lines of communication. Certainly, our military stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats in this regard,” Mattis explained, “At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”

His comments on the South China Sea appeared designed to walk back those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who advocated militarily restricting China’s access to its artificial islands and said that the U.S. would prevent China from dominating the region.

Mattis’ public criticisms of China were limited. “China has shredded the trust of nations in the region, apparently trying to have a veto authority over the diplomatic and security and economic conditions of neighboring states,” he argued, adding that China is “increasingly confrontational.”

In private, Mattis reportedly expressed stronger anti-China sentiments, inside sources told reporters.

The defense secretary apparently compared China’s assertive behavior and quest to control the region to imperial China’s subjugation of its neighbors through the tributary system during the Ming Dynasty.

Mattis told Japanese officials that such activities will not be accepted in today’s world.

He is reported to have said that the U.S. will no longer tolerate provocative Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Mattis indicated that not only will the U.S. take an active role in protecting freedom of navigation, but it will also adopt a more aggressive stance than that of the Obama administration to curb the Chinese military buildup in the region.

The previous administration began conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in October, 2015. While the operations were expected to be occur regularly, former President Barack Obama only carried out four, and some observers suggest that those were not true freedom of navigation operations.

Mattis reportedly said that the frequency of freedom of navigation operations will be stepped up under the new U.S. administration. During the press conference, he stated that “freedom of navigation is absolute, and whether it be commercial shipping or our U.S. Navy, we will practice in international waters and transit international waters as appropriate.”

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