SINGAPORE – The United States is encouraged by China’s efforts to restrain North Korea but will not accept Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Saturday.
The comments by Mattis, during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, show how U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to balance working with China to restrain North Korea’s advancing missile and nuclear programs while dealing with Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.
Trump has courted support from Chinese President Xi Jinping to restrain North Korea, raising concern among Asian allies that Washington might allow China a freer rein elsewhere in the region.
Speaking at the dialogue, Asia’s premier security forum, Mattis said the threat from North Korea is “clear and present” and Pyongyang has increased its pace of pursuing nuclear weapons.
The United States has struggled to slow North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which have become a security priority given Pyongyang’s vow to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
The Trump administration has been pressing China aggressively to rein in its reclusive neighbor, warning that all options are on the table if North Korea persists with its weapons programs.
“The Trump administration is encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization,” Mattis said. “Ultimately, we believe China will come to recognize North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset.”
However, Mattis said that seeking China’s cooperation on North Korea does not mean Washington will not challenge Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.
“There is a lot more between (China) and the United States than just two issues,” he said. “We are working with China on North Korea because that is also a problem for China.”
The U.N. Security Council on Friday expanded targeted sanctions against North Korea, adopting the first such resolution agreed upon by both the United States and China since Trump took office.
In another sign of increased pressure on North Korea, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces began a three-day exercise with two U.S. aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan on Thursday.
The exercise followed three ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang in as many weeks. The latest, on Monday, reached an altitude of 120 km before falling into international waters in the Sea of Japan — but inside an exclusive economic zone where Japan has jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of maritime resources.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, speaking at the Singapore forum, said Tokyo backs the United States using any option to deal with North Korea, including military strikes, and is seeking a deeper alliance with Washington.
“The United States is making clear through both words and deeds that all options are on the table. I strongly support the U.S. position,” Inada said.
The Australian, Japanese and U.S. defense chiefs also met Saturday to discuss effective ways of tackling North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
The meeting, involving Inada, Mattis and Australia’s Marise Payne, took place on the sidelines of the security forum.
The three have all called on China to play a more forceful role in influencing Pyongyang to change course.
It was the first time since 2015 that Australia, Japan and the United States have held a trilateral meeting of their defense chiefs.
Inada was also to hold bilateral talks with Mattis on Saturday afternoon.
Apart from using the U.S. alliance to tackle its belligerent neighbor, Japan also wants the military partnership to exert influence on other parts of Asia, including the highly contested South China Sea, Inada said.
China claims almost all of the disputed waters, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West.
“The robust, long-standing Japan-U.S. alliance now functions as a public good that contributes to the peace and stability of the region,” she said.
Beijing often rails against the United States, Japan and other countries for what it sees as interference in the South China Sea, insisting that the countries involved in disputes should work them out by themselves.
Inada also called on European navies to provide “a regular and visible presence” in the region.
A French amphibious assault carrier visited Japan in April after sailing through the South China Sea. The Self-Defense Forces later trained with the French force alongside U.S. and British contingents in what sources earlier said was meant as a show of force aimed at China.
While eager to work with China in dealing with North Korea, Mattis said the United States does not accept China placing weapons and other military assets on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
“We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims,” Mattis said. “We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Allies around the world have been concerned about the commitment of the United States since Trump took office on Jan. 20 because of his “America first” rhetoric and expectations that he would concentrate on a domestic agenda.
More specifically, Mattis sought to ease concerns for allies in the Asia-Pacific, saying the region is a priority and the primary effort is alliance-building. He added, however, that countries must “contribute sufficiently to their own security.”
In a sign of the U.S. commitment to the region, Mattis said that soon about 60 percent of overseas tactical aviation assets will be assigned to the region and he will work with Congress on an Asia-Pacific stability initiative.
The Pentagon says it supports “in principle” a proposal by Sen. John McCain, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to increase military funding for the Asia-Pacific region by $7.5 billion.
Mattis said the United States welcomes China’s economic development but he anticipated “friction” between the two countries. “While competition between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable,” Mattis said.
Mattis also said “extremist groups” must be defeated not only in Iraq and Syria but also in Southeast Asia.
The United States is training and advising troops in the south of the Philippines, he added. Washington has a small number of rotational troops in the country.
Philippine troops have been battling rebels owing allegiance to the Islamic State group in a southern city for the last 12 days.