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Chinese General Trades Jabs With Mattis In Tense Exchange Over The South China Sea

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Danny Kelley/Handout via REUTERS

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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A top Chinese general and Secretary of Defense James Mattis sparred at an international forum in Singapore on Saturday over rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

China has been rapidly expanding its military presence in the South China Sea, tightening its grip on the contested waterway, but the U.S. remains a major roadblock for Chinese ambitions.

“Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay,” Mattis said Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security gathering. “China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes,” the secretary of defense explained, pitting the American-led strategy against Chinese ambitions. “It calls into question China’s broader goals.”

In recent weeks, China has deployed jamming technology, anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and even heavy bombers to contested territories in the tense South China Sea.

“The placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use,” Mattis said, accusing China of “intimidation and coercion.”

President Donald Trump joked Saturday on Twitter that he was “surprised” that China would do such a thing.

The president previously criticized Beijing for building fortresses in the South China Sea.

An international arbitration tribunal in The Hague discredited China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea in a landmark case. Beijing rejected the ruling, as well as the tribunal’s authority to rule on the matter. Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Navy has carried out more than half a dozen freedom-of-navigation operations in the region, but such operations have not yet curbed China’s activities. (RELATED: Two US Navy Warships Challenge China’s Claims To South China Sea)

When Chinese Lt. Gen. He Lei took the stage at the Shangri-La Dialogue, he lashed out at what he called “irresponsible remarks,” referring to critical statements by Mattis, as well as officials from America’s international partners.

“Deploying troops and weapons on islands in the South China Sea is within China’s sovereign right to do and allowed by international law,” the senior Chinese military officer explained, adding, “All irresponsible remarks [on the subject] are an infringement on China’s domestic affairs.”

He explained that China’s moves in the South China Sea were no different than the moves taken by the People’s Liberation Army after the return of Hong Kong in the 1990s. A garrison was sent to the island to make Chinese sovereignty over the former British territory known to the world. (RELATED: Here’s What A Top General Had To Say When Asked If The US Could ‘Blow Apart’ China’s Artificial Islands)

Beijing regularly asserts the deployments of various weapons systems to the South China Sea are defensive actions taken in response to interference by countries located outside the region, specifically the U.S., but the general’s comments seem to contradict that narrative, suggesting instead that the purpose of these military deployments is to secure Chinese sovereignty over the disputed territories through militarization. (RELATED: China Readies For Combat After US Warships Challenge Beijing’s Contested Claims To The South China Sea)

Chinese President Xi Jinping told former President Barack Obama in 2015 he would not construct military strongholds in the region, but Beijing has not lived up to its end of the bargain. Despite his public admission that China intends to bolster its military presence in the region, the general deflected criticisms, calling American activities the actual “source of militarization” in the South China Sea.

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