SINGAPORE (CNN) – US Defense Secretary James Mattis accused China of “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific and declared that the United States does not plan to abandon its role in the region during a speech Saturday in Singapore.
“Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” Mattis said.
Mattis specifically called out Beijing’s militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea, home to some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
“We are aware China will face an array of challenges and opportunities in coming years, we are prepared to support China’s choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region,” Mattis said. “Yet China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals.”
Mattis and some of his counterparts from the Asia Pacific region are in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of security officials, contractors and academics in the Asian city-state.
Tensions surrounding the South China Sea has been a hot topic of discussion during the summit’s opening.
China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei all have competing claims to the territory.
While other countries have built military features and artificial islands, none comes close in scope to matching Beijing’s in scale or ambition.
In May, the Chinese military landed nuclear-capable bombers on their artificial islands for the first time.
Weeks earlier, US intelligence announced there was a high possibility Beijing had deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as part of military exercises.
“China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at woody island,” said Mattis, confirming previous intelligence reports.
“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” he said.
China claims its actions in the South China Sea are entirely peaceful and meant to protect its citizens and trading interests.
Mattis only briefly mentioned the status of the Korean Peninsula in his formal remarks, which come just hours after US President Donald Trump announced that he will hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in this very city.
The Defense Secretary stuck to fairly common talking points from Washington: highlighting the importance of US alliances and the ultimate goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Much of the speech was focused on longer-term challenges in the region known as the Indo-Pacific, a phrase used throughout India and Southeast Asia and recently embraced by the Trump administration.
He also mentioned the importance of upholding US alliances and partnerships in the region, specifically highlighting Australia, New Zealand and India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the keynote opening speech this year, also emphasizing the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Mattis also touched upon the status of Taiwan, an issue bound to ruffle feathers in Beijing. China views the island as a renegade province and seeks its eventual reunification with the mainland.
Beijing has been accused of ramping up the pressure on Taipei in recent weeks, with Taiwan accusing using its diplomatic and economic weight to isolate the island from the international community. It has also punished business for recognizing Taiwan as independent country.
“We oppose all unilateral efforts to alter the status quo and will continue to insist any resolution of differences accord with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Mattis delivered the keynote address at the event last year.