Mattis becomes first US defence chief to visit China since 2014

US Defence Secretary James Mattis landing in Beijing yesterday. His trip comes against the backdrop of spiralling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis landing in Beijing yesterday. His trip comes against the backdrop of spiralling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • US Defence Secretary James Mattis yesterday became the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, starting a three-day trip with a goal of improving security dialogue with Beijing despite increasingly fraught Sino-US relations.

Mr Mattis, a former Marine general, has been critical of China's muscular military moves in the South China Sea. The US military even withdrew an invitation to China to join a multinational naval exercise which will start during Mr Mattis' visit, upsetting Beijing.

The trip comes against the backdrop of spiralling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade. Beijing is also suspicious of Washington's intentions towards self-governing and democratic Taiwan, which is armed by the United States, though China views the island as a sacred part of its territory.

Mr Mattis, who was greeted with a floral bouquet as he exited his plane in Beijing, was cautious to avoid stoking tensions when speaking to reporters ahead of his trip. The Pentagon chief said he was seeking "open dialogue" at a strategic level in his meetings with military officials in Beijing.

"I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind's already made up," said Mr Mattis, who was scheduled to meet his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, for the first time, and other top officials.

"I'm going there to have a conversation."

Such an approach would appear to be welcome in China, where the widely-read state-run tabloid Global Times said: "Both sides should learn to be good listeners."

"Mattis' visit suggests that the Trump administration is still willing to hold military dialogue with China," it said in an editorial.

"Such bilateral talks will alleviate tensions between the two countries and this is better than blindly guessing the other's 'strategic ambitions'," the paper said.

Still, the Global Times was quick to list major irritants in the US-China relationship, including Washington's decision to brand China a strategic competitor in President Donald Trump's national defence strategy.

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang yesterday told reporters military-to-military relations had always been an important part of China's ties with the US, despite other problems the two countries have.

"I believe that as long as both countries have this desire to meet each other halfway, there are no difficulties that cannot be overcome," Mr Lu said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2018, with the headline 'Mattis becomes first US defence chief to visit China since 2014'. Print Edition | Subscribe