WASHINGTON • US Defence Secretary James Mattis has begun a one-week trip to Asia, hoping to strengthen defence cooperation with Indonesia and Vietnam as regional Chinese military power looms ever larger.
"We share the Pacific - it's an ocean named for peace - we would like to see it remain peaceful, so all the nations that use it and live here are prosperous," Mr Mattis told reporters accompanying him on Sunday on a plane headed to the region.
Mr Mattis was to arrive in the Indonesian capital Jakarta yesterday evening and meet today President Joko Widodo and Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu for talks on maritime cooperation. The vast Indonesian archipelago reaches from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
In Vietnam, Mr Mattis and his counterparts are set to discuss freedom of movement in the South China Sea, a region over which Beijing has extended its dominance in recent years, militarising several small, disputed islands.
Washington hopes to draw a contrast between its own approach and those of China - seen as aggressively modernising its military capacities - and Russia, which has annexed parts of Georgia and Ukraine.
"The point I want to make is, we respect Asia's sovereign nations with a sovereign voice and sovereign decisions, and we don't think anyone else should have a veto authority over their economic, their diplomatic or their security decisions," Mr Mattis said. "We respect these countries."
Meanwhile, China's top newspaper, decrying Washington as a troublemaker, yesterday said moves by the United States in the South China Sea, like last week's freedom of navigation operation, will only cause China to strengthen its deployments in the disputed waterway.
China's Foreign Ministry said the USS Hopper, a destroyer, came within 12 nautical miles of Huangyan island, which is better known as the Scarborough Shoal and is subject to a rival claim by the Philippines, a historic ally of the US.
The ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily said in a commentary that, with the situation generally improving in the South China Sea, it was clear the US was the one militarising the region. "Against this backdrop of peace and cooperation, a US ship wantonly provoking trouble is single-minded to the point of recklessness," the paper said.
But the top defence official in the Philippines has defended the move, saying it is not a cause for concern.
"No, for as long as they are on innocent passage. International law allows innocent passage even in territorial waters," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Sunday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS