The United States has turned up the heat on North Korea and its main benefactor China, calling the North Koreans a “clear and present danger” and chastising the Chinese for coercive behaviour in the South China Sea.
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, James Mattis, the US defence secretary, said the Trump administration was encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to working with the US and others to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
We oppose countries militarising artificial islands
He also said he thought China ultimately would see North Korea as a liability rather than an asset.
China blocked tough new sanctions against North Korea that the US pushed in the UN Security Council on Friday.
However, the Security Council did vote unanimously to add 15 individuals and four entities linked to the North’s nuclear and missile programmes to a UN sanctions blacklist. In his speech, Mattis sought to balance his hopeful comments on China with sharp criticism of what he called Beijing’s disregard for international law by its “indisputable militarisation” of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“We oppose countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law,” he said. “We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told a news conference that he believed Mattis had effectively stressed the US commitment to allies in the Asia-Pacific region. “He was very clear, very strong,” said Thornberry, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation on an Asia tour and attended yesterday’s Singapore conference.
Overall, Mattis’s speech struck a positive, hopeful tone for cooperation and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, where he and his predecessors have made it a priority to nurture and strengthen alliances and partnerships.
“While competition between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable,” he said. “Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. We will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause.”
He was, however, unrelentingly critical of North Korea, a politically and economically isolated nation which he called an “urgent military threat”.
In a question-and-answer session with his audience of national security experts from across the globe, Mattis was asked whether the US might attack the North pre-emptively.
“We’re working diplomatically, economically, we’re trying to exhaust all possible alternatives to avert this race for a nuclear weapon,” he said.