TOKYO • Diplomatic efforts should be exhausted to resolve the South China Sea dispute, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said yesterday, just weeks after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to advocate a tougher stance on the issue.
Speaking in Tokyo after a meeting with hawkish Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, Mr Mattis accused China of "shredding the trust" of its neighbours.
He said freedom of navigation remained absolute and that nations should "play by the rules".
"What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try and resolve this properly," he told reporters at a press conference in Tokyo. "Our military stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats," he said, adding that "at this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all".
China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, where it has constructed features on seven rocks and reefs and installed military facilities. Several South-east Asian nations and Taiwan also claim parts of the area, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of trade passes each year.
NO NEED FOR MILITARY MOVES
What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try and resolve this properly. Our military stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats... (and) at this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.
US DEFENCE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS
Late last month, Mr Tillerson provoked a sharp rebuke from Beijing when he said Washington should send a clear signal that further island-building should stop, and that China's future "access to those islands is not going to be allowed".
In the first overseas trip by a member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet, Mr Mattis sought to reassure officials in South Korea and Japan that the new US administration will stand by its alliances with both the nations.
Concern had grown after Mr Trump accused the two nations of failing to pay enough for US protection. Both countries rely on the US "nuclear umbrella" to deter threats from China and North Korea. But Mr Mattis, during his meetings in Tokyo and Seoul, made clear that Washington was ready to answer any threats the US allies may face. In response to a question, Mr Mattis called the defence cost-sharing arrangement with Japan a "model".
Mr Mattis also reaffirmed the longstanding US view that some East China Sea islands disputed by Japan and China are administered by Tokyo and are therefore covered by the US-Japan security treaty.
"I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku islands stands - the US will continue to recognise Japanese administration of the islands," Mr Mattis said.
"And, as such, Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies." Article 5 commits the United States to defend Japan or territories it administers against any attack.
In response, China warned the US that it was risking instability in Asia by making "wrong comments".
"The Diaoyu islands have been Chinese territory in history," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, using the Chinese name for the disputed island chain.
"We urge the US to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong comments on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu islands to avoid further complication of related issues and avoid bringing regional instability," Mr Lu added.
A former US Marine general who served in Japan and South Korea, Mr Mattis told Japan's Mr Inada that their alliance remained a "cornerstone" of regional stability.
"It is quite remarkable that Mattis was bold enough to say in his opening remarks that the Senkakus should be protected under the Japan-US security treaty," said Professor Hideshi Takesada of Takushoku University in Tokyo, who is an expert on Asian security.
Meanwhile, four Chinese coastguard vessels were spotted close to Japan-administered waters around the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu isles yesterday, according to the Japan Coast Guard.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE