|Arthur Dominic Villasanta |||Jun 03, 2017 09:43 PM EDT|
(Photo : US Navy) Carrier strike groups of the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan steam together off North Korea.
The United States warned China it will not tolerate any further militarization of China's illegal man-made islands in the South China Sea in its strongest such warning yet.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis said China's actions are undermining regional stability and must stop.
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"We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims," Mattis emphasized during an the ongoing Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asia-focused defense summit of ministers and delegates from more than 50 countries discussing security challenges and opportunities in Asia.
"We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo."
Washington has repeatedly stated it will assiduously defend its interests in the South China Sea against China's creeping militarization. China's ambition is to transform the South China Sea into a Chinese lake which no shipping or aircraft (military or civilian) can transit without its permission.
The White House through its spokesman earlier said the U.S. will "make sure we protect our interests there (in the South China Sea),"
"If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper ... we'll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by another country," said the spokesman.
Military analysts said Washington's current spate of more hawkish remarks seems to indicate the U.S. has ditched former president Barack Obama's position of not taking sides in the South China Sea dispute.
What we see now, they said, is the U.S. siding with China's Asian foes led by Vietnam despite seeking China's assistance in solving the North Korean conundrum.
Mattis' strongly worded -- and threatening -- statements harkens back to similar remarks previously made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who said the U.S. was "going to have to send China a clear signal that first the island-building stops, and second your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed."
Mattis also reassured America's bewildered Asian allies it isn't turning its back on Asia and will, in fact, broaden and deepen its defense cooperation with its allies in the face of Chinese aggression. He affirmed the U.S.' commitment to Asia.
While his remarks are the most threatening he has made to date on the issue of China's illegal occupation of the South China Sea, Mattis also sought to give China the chance to back down.
He noted that while competition between the two countries "is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," meaning it's up to China to de-escalate this conflict.
Mattis' statements come at a time when the United States' naval military presence in Asia is at its most powerful.
Currently steaming off North Korea are two massive carrier strike groups led by the nuclear powered aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76).
A third strike group led by another carrier, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68), will join the Vinson and Reagan combat groups in the next few weeks.
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