US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to reporters. Photo: AFP/Thomas Watkins
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to reporters. Photo: AFP/Thomas Watkins

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was unequivocal on Tuesday in his insistence that US freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea would continue, despite Beijing’s protestations.

The comments came after China’s foreign ministry expressed Beijing’s “strong dissatisfaction” with a FONOP carried out on Sunday.

“[China] strongly urges the United States to immediately cease these provocative activities which violate China’s sovereignty and threaten its security.”

The ministry was responding to a US destroyer and cruiser sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China, as well as Taiwan and Vietnam.

Speaking while in transit on a flight to the region, Mattis pushed back on the Chinese criticism.

“It’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation,” Mattis told reporters

“You’ll notice there is only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them,” he said, in reference to China.

“We maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific. We don’t hide it from anyone. We announce it in public affairs statement,” Mattis stressed, adding “when [the Chinese] do things that are opaque to the rest of us then we cannot cooperate in areas we could otherwise cooperate in.”

When asked whether the FONOPS would continue with more frequency than in the past, the defense secretary answered, “yes.”

“There’s a very steady drumbeat of freedom of navigation operations. We’re very open about them.”

Mattis’ comments come ahead of his participation in the Shangri-la Dialogue to be held in Singapore, beginning on Friday. He told reporters on the flight that, despite the administration’s focus on North Korea, other regional security issues, including the South China Sea, will be top priorities.