Mattis Says China Is ‘Out of Step’ With International Law

Defense Secretary

Jim Mattis

said Tuesday that he rescinded China’s invitation to take part in a multinational Pacific Rim military exercise because Beijing is “out of step with international law” in how it has militarized the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

Mr. Mattis, publicly addressing China’s removal last week from the exercise, recalled Chinese President

Xi Jinping’s

2015 pledge not to militarize the islands.

“We have seen in the last month, they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” Mr. Mattis told reporters on a flight to Hawaii.

Earlier this month, Beijing sent an H-6K heavy bomber to Woody Island. It also has installed surface-to-air and antiship cruise missiles and communications jamming equipment on some island structures, U.S. officials have said.

“When they do things that are opaque to the rest of us, then we cannot cooperate in areas we otherwise would cooperate in,” Mr. Mattis said.

Beijing maintains that it has “indisputable” sovereignty over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, and that its new facilities are for defensive and civilian purposes.

Top Chinese officials last week criticized Mr. Mattis’s decision to withdraw the invitation to take part in the 27-nation Rim of the Pacific exercise in June, saying it reflects Washington’s “negative mind-set.”

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Mr. Mattis, after weeks of internal deliberation, concluded that China shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the biennial exercise, also known as Rimpac.

China had participated in two previous Rimpac exercises. The U.S. invitation had been seen as sign of international acceptance of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Mr. Mattis on Tuesday also defended a so-called freedom of navigation maneuver last week in which two U.S. Navy warships sailed near Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea. In March, a U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a similar maneuver.

“You will notice there is only country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them,” Mr. Mattis said, referring to China. “But it is international waters. And a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. So we will continue that.”

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at Nancy.Youssef@wsj.com

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