Mattis to 'take measure' of Chinese strategic ambitions

US Defence Secretary James Mattis aboard his official aircraft, on a trip taking him to China, South Korea and Japan.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis aboard his official aircraft, on a trip taking him to China, South Korea and Japan.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE (Alaska) • US Secretary of Defence James Mattis will make his first visit to China this week amid rising tensions between the two countries but also a need for Beijing's support in nuclear talks with North Korea.

Mr Mattis told reporters on Sunday he wants to "take measure" of China's strategic ambitions after it positioned weaponry on disputed islets in the South China Sea and is seeking to project its military power deep into the Pacific.

But in a four-day trip that will include South Korea and Japan, the Pentagon chief also hopes to confirm China's commitment to pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, after historic talks between President Donald Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

The United States, China, Japan and South Korea "have a common goal: the complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula", Mr Mattis said.

He arrived on Sunday in Alaska, where he visited Fort Greely and Eielson Air Force Base, before continuing to China.

In Beijing from today to Thursday, Mr Mattis will meet senior Chinese defence officials. Then he will travel to Seoul for talks with his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo, followed by a stop on Friday in Japan to see defence chief Itsunori Onodera.

The meetings are aimed at reassuring both American allies that Washington's regional defence commitment remains unchanged after Mr Trump unexpectedly announced on June 12 that the US would suspend a major joint military exercise in South Korea following his meeting with Mr Kim.

The visit to China comes amid bilateral strains that cross multiple sectors. The Trump administration is challenging China on trade, theft of industrial secrets and cyberthreats.

In the defence sector, China's decision to position military hardware in built-up atolls in the South China Sea has sparked new security concerns throughout South-east Asia.

Signalling Washington's displeasure, the Pentagon last month disinvited China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, in which some two dozen navies train together for mostly civilian missions.

Mr Mattis has visited Asia seven times in his 17 months since becoming defence chief, but not China. Also, he has yet to meet China's new Defence Minister, General Wei Fenghe.

He said the talks in Beijing will seek to scope out China's long-term strategic intentions and determine possible areas of military-to-military cooperation.

He declined to characterise the relationship, saying that could "poison the well" before he meets his Chinese counterparts.

"I'm going there to get what I consider to be straight from them what they see for a strategic relationship," he said. "I'm going there to have a conversation."

Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said Mr Mattis was visiting Beijing at Gen Wei's invitation.

"It is in the common interests of both China and the United States to develop a healthy and stable bilateral military relationship," Mr Ren said in a statement.

Mr Mattis will be adding his voice to North Korea talks, urging China, which hosted Mr Kim last week, to hold firm on commercial pressure on Pyongyang.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2018, with the headline 'Mattis to 'take measure' of Chinese strategic ambitions'. Print Edition | Subscribe