The United States is encouraged by China’s efforts to restrain North Korea but Washington will not accept Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Saturday.
The comments by Mattis, during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, show how U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to balance working with China to restrain North Korea’s advancing missile and nuclear programs while dealing with Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.
U.S. allies have been worried by Trump’s actively courting Chinese President Xi Jinping to restrain North Korea, fearing Washington might allow China a more free rein elsewhere in the region.
Some allies have also expressed concern that Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific trade partnership and the Paris global climate accord signals the United States is diluting its global leadership role.
Speaking at the dialogue, Asia’s premier security forum, Mattis said the United States remained fully engaged with its partners.
“Like it or not, we are a part of the world…What a crummy world if we all retreat inside our borders,” he said.
“Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing,” Mattis added, paraphrasing a quotation by British wartime leader Winston Churchill. “So we will still be there and we will be there with you.”
Nevertheless, reversing or slowing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs has become a security priority for Washington, given Pyongyang’s vow to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
The Trump administration has been pressing China aggressively to rein in its reclusive neighbor, warning all options are on the table if North Korea persists with its weapons programs.
“The Trump administration is encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization,” Mattis said.