China cancels high-level security talks with US

China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis review an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing, on June 27, 2018.
China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis review an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing, on June 27, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - China cancelled an important annual security meeting planned for mid-October with Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Beijing, saying a senior Chinese military officer would not be available to meet him, a US official said on Sunday (Sept 30).

The decision to withdraw from the high-level encounter, known as the diplomatic and security dialogue, was the latest sign of bad blood between China and the United States, and capped a week of tit-for-tat actions by both nations as they settled into a newly chilly relationship. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, as per diplomatic norm.

The cancellation of the dialogue, an event that China until recently had advertised as a productive way for the two sides to talk, showed how quickly the tensions over an escalating trade war have infected other parts of the relationship, particularly vital strategic concerns including Taiwan, arms sales and the South China Sea.

Mr Matt Pottinger, a senior US foreign policy official, summarised the administration's attitude to China last week, telling a crowd at the celebration of national day at the Chinese Embassy in Washington that the US was intent on competing with China - brittle language that is usually absent from formal events.

"For us, in the United States, competition is not a four-letter word," Mr Pottinger, who deals with China on the National Security Council, said in his remarks.

Vice-President Mike Pence is expected to deliver a major speech this week describing the administration's negative views of China's international behaviour over the last number of years, including what it sees as efforts to influence US domestic politics. The speech will almost certainly further dampen the increasingly frosty ties between Washington and Beijing.

In that spirit, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a Chinese state military company for buying weapons from Russia, and announced sales of US$330 million (S$450 million) in military equipment to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as its own.

China was also irritated by a Pentagon announcement last Wednesday that B-52 bombers had flown over the East China Sea and the South China Sea as part of its "continuous bomber presence in the region".

 
 
 

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, and strongly protests against US military patrols there.

President Donald Trump, who has been battering China over trade, turned to a new front last week, accusing Beijing of interfering in the approaching midterm elections by buying major advertising space in an Iowa newspaper.

China told the Trump administration last Friday that a senior Chinese military official would not be meeting Mr Mattis, the unnamed US official said.

At last year's security and diplomatic dialogue, the chief of the People's Liberation Army, General Fang Fenghui, attended the sessions held in Washington. (Gen Fang was purged shortly afterward, for unrelated reasons.)

Whether the accumulation of last week's episodes, or one in particular, provoked the decision to scuttle the dialogue is not clear, the US official said.

But the sanctions on the Chinese military's Equipment Development Department, for purchases of fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles from Russia, seemed to particularly sting, the official said.

In some respects, Beijing's move to abandon the dialogue, at least for the moment, was not surprising.

The Foreign Ministry signalled last week that the arms sale to Taiwan threatened to cause "severe damage" to relations with the US, including "bilateral cooperation in major fields". Last Tuesday, China refused a request by a US warship to make a port visit to Hong Kong in October.

China began a week-long holiday on Sunday. Government officials were not available for comment on the cancellation of the meeting.

On another front that could add to the sour feelings, the US ambassador in Beijing published a strongly worded opinion article on Sunday in his hometown newspaper, the Des Moines Register.

The opinion piece, a reply to a four-page advertorial paid for in the Register by the Chinese government last weekend, accused China of bullying and of unfair trade practices. It also complained about China's state-controlled press.

The ambassador, Mr Terry Branstad, an early supporter of Mr Trump, is a former governor of Iowa, a state whose farmers are in the crossfire of Mr Trump's trade war. Iowa's soybean farmers face slumping sales as China turns to Latin America to buy the huge amounts of soybeans it usually buys in Iowa.

Mr Branstad wrote that Mr Trump was seeking to level the playing field between US companies and their Chinese competitors by imposing tariffs.

"Unfortunately, China has responded to such action by taking further steps to harm American workers, farmers and businesses through retaliatory actions - and is now doubling down on that bullying by running propaganda ads in our own free press," he said.

He noted that the Chinese media was "under the firm thumb of the Chinese Communist Party" and lacked "any true reflection of the disparity of opinions the Chinese people may have on China's troubling economic trajectory".

Mr Branstad appeared anxious to make a stand against the supplement paid for by China. The supplement looked at the economic costs of Mr Trump's trade war for Iowa farmers, many of whom are particularly dependent on global trade.

A US lawyer in Beijing said he found the tone of Mr Branstad's article inappropriate.

"Taking out advertisements in an American newspaper may be propaganda, but is it bullying?" said Mr James Zimmerman, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

"Ambassador Branstad is now playing the demonisation card, which is putting the commercial and strategic interests of the United States at risk."