China, US strike positive tone in defence talks

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis receiving a bouquet upon arrival at an airport in Beijing.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis receiving a bouquet upon arrival at an airport in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - US Defence Secretary James Mattis kicked off talks in China on Wednesday (June 27) that he and his Chinese counterpart described as “open and honest,” seeking to strike a positive tone despite Sino-US tensions over trade and the South China Sea.

Mattis, the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, told Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe that he expected all of his conversations in Beijing would be characterised by an “open and honest” dialogue, like the one he had with Wei.

“I’m here because of the importance that we in the US military place on the military-to-military relationship with the PLA,” Mattis said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

“The military to military relationship is critical to the broader relationship between our two countries.”

Mattis also invited Wei to visit him at the Pentagon.

Wei was similarly upbeat.

“Your visit to China this time is ... a new positive factor to the military-to-military and state-to-state relationship,”Wei said.

Wei, who only assumed his position in March, noted a goal outlined by Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump “to increase the strategic trust” between the United States and China.

“Indeed it will be significant for us to further build our strategic confidence and even cooperation,” he said.

Later in the day, Mattis will meet other top Chinese officials, including Xi. The trip comes against the backdrop of spiralling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade.

Mattis, a former Marine general, has been highly critical of China’s muscular military moves in the South China Sea.

The US accuses China of militarising the disputed South China Sea with its island-building work there, while China has been angered by U.S. naval patrols through the strategic waterway.

In May, the United States withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major U.S.-hosted naval drill, the Rim of the Pacific exercise, known as RIMPAC that will start during Mattis' visit and previously attended by China, in response to what Washington sees as Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

Still, the two have broad strategic common interests, such as ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

China welcomed this month’s historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, where Kim reaffirmed a commitment to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, while Trump said he would halt joint US-South Korean “war games”.

Analysts have warned that Taiwan could emerge as a new flash point in Sino-US relations.

As Mattis arrived, Chinese state media said a formation of Chinese warships has been holding daily combat drills for more than a week in waters near Taiwan, and there have been frequent Chinese air force exercises near the island.

US overtures towards Taiwan, from unveiling a new de facto embassy to passing the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages US officials to visit, have further escalated tension between Beijing and Taipei.

The United States is considering sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait, US officials said in early June.

Such a passage, should it happen, could be seen in Taiwan as a fresh sign of support by President Trump. The last time a U.S. aircraft carrier transited the Taiwan Strait was in 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush, and some US military officials believe a carrier transit is overdue.