Shangri-La: Australia Warns Against 'Coercive' China; Mattis Tries to Reassure Allies

Shangri-La: Australia Warns Against 'Coercive' China; Mattis Tries to Reassure Allies
Malcolm Turnbull|Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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Among the speeches in Singapore Pentagon chief Jim Mattis moved to reassure Asian allies Saturday that the United States can work with China on reining in North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

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China has nothing to gain by strong-arming its way in the Asia-Pacific, Australia's prime minister said Friday, warning that a "coercive" Beijing would only face resentment in the region.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking at a regional security conference in Singapore, said it was inevitable that China play a bigger regional role to match its rising economic weight, but cautioned against threatening its smaller neighbors.

Turnbull's address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual defense and security summit, follows China's moves to build a series of artificial islands on shoals and reefs in contested waters in the South China Sea, which has sparked concern among its neighbors.

Beijing claims almost the entire sea, pitting it against the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam which have partial claims.

"A coercive China would find its neighbors resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Beijing's power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States," said Turnbull.

"Just as modern China was founded in 1949 on an assertion of national sovereignty, so will 21st century China best succeed by respecting the sovereignty of others and in so doing build a reservoir of trust and cooperation with its neighbors," he added.

Turnbull also urged Beijing to help bring North Korea "to its senses" and exercise its influence over Pyongyang.

On Monday the North test-fired a ballistic missile for the third time in less than three weeks, its 12th this year.

"The North Korean regime, the Pyongyang government, is endangering the peace of the region and indeed the peace of the world by conduct that is persistently reckless, dangerous and indeed unlawful," Turnbull said.

Turnbull also said that countries in the region should not see US President Donald Trump's recent decisions to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact and the Paris climate agreement as disengagement from the global community.

"While these decisions are disappointing, we should take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all," he said.

Mattis reassures allies as US turns to China on N. Korea

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis moved to reassure Asian allies Saturday that the United States can work with China on reining in North Korea's nuclear weapons program without compromising its opposition to Beijing's continued "militarisation" of the South China Sea.

President Donald Trump -- who frequently denounced China on the campaign trail -- has turned to Beijing to help pressure Pyongyang, prompting broad concerns that America will go easy on China's maritime activities.

Longstanding partners are also mortified that Trump has seemed indifferent to traditional alliances, and have interpreted his pulling out of a trans-Pacific trade deal and the Paris climate accords as signs of broader American disengagement.

Mattis, arguably Trump's most important statesman as the new president hopes to slash the State Department, tried to allay the fears.

"In the security arena, we have a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order, a product of so many nations' efforts to create stability," Mattis said in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a major defense summit for countries from the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Calling North Korea's nuclear ambitions a "threat to us all," Mattis asked the international community to come together on the issue.

It is "imperative that we do our part each of us to fulfill our obligations and work together to support our shared goal of denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula," Mattis said.

"The Trump administration is encouraged by China's renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearisation," he added.

Pyongyang on Monday test-fired another rocket, the latest in a series of launches and atomic tests that have ratcheted up tensions over its quest to develop weapons capable of hitting the United States - something Trump has said "won't happen."

The defense chief spoke directly to concerns America might grant concessions to China to ensure cooperation on North Korea, saying the issue was not "binary" and that the United States would continue to pressure Beijing elsewhere.

"Artificial island construction and indisputable militarisation of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability," Mattis said, calling China out over its "disregard for international law" and "contempt for other nations' interests."

The US Navy on May 25 conducted a "freedom of navigation" operation in the South China Sea, when the USS Dewey guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan and several Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

It has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes and other equipment.

'Unbeliever'

Summit delegates were clearly anguished by the South China Sea issue and Trump's intentions.

One questioner asked if the US president was an "unbeliever" in the rules-based regional order. Another wondered if he could be trusted given his "America First" pronouncements.

"Bear with us," Mattis said. "We will still be there, and we will be there with you."

Mattis was repeatedly asked about Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate pact. He did not address the issue directly but the Pentagon generally views climate change as a security threat, especially given its role in famines and mass relocations.

Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada later said she placed "full trust" in the United States, a sentiment echoed by Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne.

"I think actions speak as loud if not occasionally louder than words," Payne said, pointing out that Mattis's first international visit was to Japan and South Korea.

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said delegates were generally reassured.

"There's a consensus that the US message is very clear, not only from the point of view of the messaging, but the messenger," he said.

Lieutenant General He Lei, the head of China's delegation to the summit, said the "Asia-Pacific situation is generally safe and positive" but warned of "hotspot issues" flaring up from time to time.

"The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula keeps fermenting and remains complicated and unresolved," he said.

"Individual countries maintain their security through exclusive military alliances, base their security on other countries' insecurity and do not hesitate to stir up conflict and provoke trouble."

After meeting with President Xi Jinping in April, Trump, who once accused China of "raping" the US, praised its leader as a "good man," saying it would be inappropriate to pressure Beijing while Washington is seeking its help with Pyongyang.

International pressure ramped up on Pyongyang Friday as the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on 18 North Korean officials and entities.

Reporting by: Toh Ting Wei; Martin Abbugao; Thomas Watkins.