In a second salvo of tough rhetoric aimed at Beijing, a retired general nominated by United States President-elect Donald Trump to run the Pentagon said he considered China’s behaviour in the South China Sea to be part of a mounting assault on global stability, adding that Washington must be prepared to “confront inappropriate behaviour” by the Chinese where necessary.
The comments by retired US Marine General James Mattis on Thursday (Jan 12) came a day after another top Cabinet-pick by Mr Trump, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, told US senators that he would seek to deny Beijing access to the artificial islands they have been building in the South China Sea.
China’s actions in the region are comparable to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Mr Tillerson added in comments that infuriated Beijing.
Gen Mattis, appearing before the US Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing as the next Defence Secretary, maintained the hawkish tone on China.
“I think it (the world order) is under the biggest attack since World War Two, sir, and that is from Russia, from terrorist groups, and with what China is doing in the South China Sea,” he told the committee.
He noted that while Washington should “engage and collaborate with China where possible”, it must also “be prepared to confront inappropriate behavior if China chooses to act contrary to our interests.”
“China’s behavior has led countries in the region to look for stronger US leadership. If confirmed, I will examine ways to strengthen our allies and partners, while taking a careful look at our own military capabilities in the region,” the 66-year-old added in a written response to questions posed to him by the committee.
In recent years, concern has been growing about Beijing building artificial islands in the South China Sea, as well as its construction of airstrips and docks on disputed reefs and islands in that body of water.
China has constructed more than 1,214ha of land atop reefs in the past few years.
It claims most of the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) in shipborne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
Stressing the importance of upholding of the freedom of navigation and overflight, Gen Mattis noted that if confirmed, he will support “policy measures designed to preserve and protect the continued global mobility of US forces”.
US President Barack Obama’s administration conducted periodic air and naval patrols to assert the right of free navigation in the South China Sea, and these patrols have angered Beijing.
A colourful commander famed for his pugnacious aphorisms, Gen Mattis earned the nickname “Mad Dog” with his battle-hardened swagger and the sort of blunt language the US Marines are famous for.
He has been quoted as saying, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
The Washington state native is expected to receive a special congressional waiver for him to serve in the defence secretary post. Gen Mattis, who retired from the military in 2013, is technically ineligible for the job since he has not been a civilian for at least seven years. AGENCIES