Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday a Navy warship passage near disputed islands in the South China Sea was legal and did not violate China's sovereignty as Beijing asserted.
"We stay strictly in accordance with international law, so there's no violation of anyone's sovereignty," Mattis told the Washington Free Beacon during a flight from Miami to Washington.
The comments were the first by Mattis on warship passages near disputed South China Sea islands that were ordered by him earlier this year to be carried out in a more systematic program.
The defense secretary commented in response to a question about Chinese government protests this week against a recent South China Sea naval operation by the Navy destroyer USS Chafee.
Beijing officials complained the ship violated Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, in the northern part of the South China Sea. China calls the islands Xisha and they are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Chafee, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed near the Paracels to challenge what U.S. officials said was "excessive maritime claims."
The destroyer did not pass within 12 miles of any of the Paracels. An earlier destroyer passage by the USS John S McCain in August came within 12 miles of the disputed Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, further south in the sea.
U.S. officials confirmed Chinese reports that a frigate, the Huangshan and two J-11B jet fighters, along with a helicopter, shadowed the Chafee during its maneuvers.
Mattis said the military has been conducting warship passages called freedom of navigation operations not only near China but also around the world for decades. The maneuvers are benign, he said.
"Our freedom of navigation maneuvers are not done with any kind of offensive designs," Mattis said.
"We do them in multiple areas around the world where we want to maintain freedom of navigation. It's in absolute accordance with international law. And that's why we do not get taken into any international organization's hearings.
The Chafee's passage was the fourth freedom of navigation operation in the South China See in recent months and is part of a new program under Mattis to regularize the warship passages. During the Obama administration the controversial operations were put on hold and severely limited at a time when China quietly built up some 3,200 acres of new islands in the sea and has begun making military facilities on the islands.
The Pentagon's latest report on the Chinese military warned that Beijing has begun militarizing numerous disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Additionally, Beijing was engaging in non-military coercing in a bid to control the strategic waterway.
"China continues to exercise low-intensity coercion to advance its claims in the East and South China Seas," the report to Congress said, describing the effort as a "timed progression of incremental but intensifying steps to attempt to increase effective control over disputed areas and avoid escalation to military conflict."
The military construction on the disputed islands has included long runways the Pentagon says will be capable of handling large troop transports and other military aircraft. Other military features seen on the islands include jet hangers, new port facilities, and water and fuel storage depots.
The Free Beacon reported last month that Beijing has adopted a new legal strategy called the "Four Sha" that seeks to solidify claims on four different sets of disputed islands in the sea.
The Oct. 10 operation triggered protests from both the Chinese Defense and Foreign Ministries.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Oct. 11 in Beijing the "so-called ‘freedom of navigation' operation" near the Xisha Islands was carried out "without China's approval."
"The Chinese side immediately sent naval ships and fighter planes to identify and verify the U.S. warship according to law and warn and expel it," she said.
Hua claimed the islands are part of Chinese territory based on Chinese law put forth in 1996.
"The relevant behavior of the U.S. warship has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, severely undermined China's sovereignty and security interests, put in jeopardy the life safety of the frontline personnel from both sides," Hua said. "China is firmly opposed to this and has lodged serious representation with the U.S. side."
The Defense Ministry went further on Oct. 11 alleging the Chafee maneuver was a military provocation.
In a statement, the ministry said the provocation infringed upon Chinese sovereignty and security and harmed mutual trust between the two military and also undermined regional stability.
The ministry said the Chinese military would further strengthen its naval and air defense capabilities.
"It is a critical stage for the development of the relationship between Chinese and American armies, and we demand the U.S. side earnestly take steps to correct its mistakes and inject positive energy into bilateral ties," the statement said.
The Paracels have been under disputed control by China since 1974. Tensions between China and Vietnam rose in 2014 when Beijing moved exploratory oil drilling rigs into the vicinity of the islands.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former director of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet, said the Trump administration's continuing freedom of navigation operations show a commitment to international norms "despite Beijing’s demands that American warships seek prior approval before entering the South China Sea."
"The secretary of defense's stoic insistence on this right, enjoyed by all nations, should be applauded from Brussels to Bombay," he said.
On Iran, Mattis said Tehran continues its malign influence throughout the Middle East but so far there were no plans to raise the security posture of U.S. forces around the world over concerns Iran might conduct attacks in the aftermath of President Trump's harsh condemnation in announcing a decertification of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
"We keep an eye on the potential for more provocations from the Iranians but right now we have not seen that," he said.
Mattis also said he is closely watching growing tensions between Iraqi government authorities and ethnic Kurds in the northern part of the country.
"We have got to work on this, the secretary of state has the lead, but my forces are integrated among these forces and they are working too, to make certain we keep any potential for conflict off the table," Mattis said.
The defense secretary said he is urging all sides to focus on defeating ISIS. "We can’t turn on each other right now," he said. "We don’t want this to go to a shooting situation."