BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Secretary of Defence James Mattis played down tensions with Beijing on Tuesday (Oct 16), saying the US was "not out to contain China" and was cooperating whenever possible, but that there would be times they would "step on each other's toes".
"Obviously, we're not out to contain China. We'd have taken an altogether different stance had that been considered. It has not been considered," he told reporters on Monday on a plane en route to Vietnam.
"We seek a relationship with China that's grounded in fairness, reciprocity and respect for sovereignty," he said.
He said Washington is cooperating with China on issues including North Korea and the United Nations.
"So we're two large powers, or two Pacific powers, two economic powers. There's going to be times we step on each other's toes, so we're going to have to find a way to productively manage our relationship," he said.
Mr Mattis spoke on his way to attend defence ministers' meetings hosted by Asean in Singapore, where he could cross paths with Chinese officials.
China cancelled high-level security talks with Mr Mattis that had been planned for mid-October in Beijing, the New York Times reported on Oct 1.
Mr Trump called Mr Mattis "sort of a Democrat" in a weekend interview with 60 Minutes.
He also hinted the former US Marine Corps general may be planning to quit.
Mr Mattis is seen as a force for stability in foreign policy in the Trump administration, managing crises from North Korea to Syria under a leader who prides himself on his unpredictability.
Mr Mattis' latest attempt to soften the White House's messaging came amid escalating rhetoric between the US and China in recent weeks, as the world's two largest economies remain locked in a trade battle.
Manoeuvres in the disputed South China Sea, including a close call between a US and a Chinese destroyer, fuelled Beijing's concern that the US wants to stop China from threatening its dominance of the Indo-Pacific.
Vice-President Mike Pence ramped up the administration's anti-China rhetoric in a speech, saying Beijing has created a "a whole-of-government approach" to sway US public opinion, including spies, tariffs, coercive measures and a propaganda campaign.
And Mr Trump accused the Chinese of meddling in US congressional elections while at the United Nations General Assembly, saying President Xi Jinping might no longer be a friend.