US-China Defense Dialogue Dashes Hopes For Progress In South China Sea – Analysis


The long anticipated Second US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue has come and gone and there with no apparent progress on any of the wicked issues – especially their confrontation in the South China Sea.  Sharp policy differences and high tensions remain with no apparently agreed risk reduction measures in place.

The  9 November meeting in Washington was between delegations led by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis  for the U.S. and Politburo Member Yang Jiechi and Defense Minster Wei Fenghe for China.  Their meeting had been postponed, reportedly due to rising tensions between their militaries.   Indeed, some question why the meeting took place at all– especially in Washington.

After declining to make Wei available in Beijing for an earlier meeting with Mattis that forced Washington to cancel, it is surprising that China agreed to send their representatives to Washington. It would seem that either there were urgent security matters to discuss or China wanted something – – or both.  Perhaps their main purpose was to prepare for the expected meeting between their leaders on the sidelines of the upcoming Group 20 summit in Argentina.  Or perhaps China wanted to ascertain if Mattis was staying in his post despite rumors to the contrary, and if not who and what policy would likely replace him.  It may also have been keen to determine if their military relations could continue and be productive.

Despite soothing rhetoric – primarily from the U.S.– there is clearly concern on both sides.  According to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, militaries had met about four months ago to increase transparency and reduce the risk of miscalculation.

Military to military relations are perhaps the most significant dimension of overall US-China relations because they can be a stabilizing force when relations in other spheres break down.  Indeed in June President Xi Jinping called the US-China military relationship the “model component of our overall bilateral relations”.   A Chinese defense ministry spokesperson has said it hopes the military relationship can become a “stabilizer” for overall ties.   As Randall Schriver, a top Pentagon Official for Asia said before the meeting such “high level talks are especially valuable during times of tension”. Given the current poor and worsening political and diplomatic relations between the two, the meeting was considered critical in setting the tone for the near future.

But on 4 October, US Vice President Michael Pence gave a cold war like, ‘it’s us or them’ speech criticizing China across the board.  He highlighted the recent ‘unsafe’ challenge by a Chinese destroyer to the USS Decatur as it was undertaking a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) against China’s claims in the South China Sea and added belligerently “We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.” More ominous to China, the U.S. has also stepped up its nuclear capable B52 over flights of the East and South China Seas.

Observers had hoped the meeting would lead to some tension -lowering agreements or at least public statements from both to that effect.  For example, Zhao Minghao writing in the Global Time said “It is expected this dialogue will ease the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington _ _.” Indeed, Schriver said the talks would include “risk reduction efforts that the two countries can undertake which aim to drive down the chance of an inadvertent clash”. They must be disappointed. The delegation leaders’ joint press conference was certainly not reassuring.

The two sides said they “had candid and in – depth conversations _ _,” ‘diplomatese’ for sharp disagreements.  Indeed, the two basically reiterated their positions and talked past each other with no sign of compromise on specifics.  Pompeo said “I was clear _ _ that we have continued concern about China’s activities and militarization in the South China Sea.  We pressed China to live up to its past commitments in this area.”  This is a reference to Chinese President Xi’s supposed “pledge” to not militarize the features.

But this may be a misunderstanding that has been repeated over and over until it has become a dangerous ‘alternative fact’. President Xi did not say that China would “not militarize the islands”. According to the translation, he said “_ _ China does not intend to pursue militarization [of the features].  The key words are “intend” and “militarization”. First of all China may well have not intended to “militarize” the features. But when Vietnam and the U.S. took what it considered threatening military actions in the area,  it may have felt a need to respond.  Indeed, China has repeatedly warned that if the US persisted with provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes and FONOPs near its coast and occupied features it could prepare to defend itself.  Moreover, China apparently does not consider defensive installations “militarization”.

Mattis stated “we also discussed the importance for all military, law enforcement, and civilian vessels and aircraft, including those in the PLA Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard, and the PRC Maritime Militia, to operate in a safe and professional manner, in accordance with international law _ _ _.” This was probably a reference to the Decatur incident in which the U.S. considers China at fault. He then reiterated Department of Defense slogan that “the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Yang responded to Pompeo that “we expect the United States to respect China’s security interests in the Asia Pacific, China’s sovereignty and development interests.”  “We believe that no country should use any excuse to engage in militarization in the region, _ _ _” “to use the freedom of navigation and overflight as an excuse to pursue military actions is unjustifiable.”

He also “reiterated China’s “principled position on this issue and pointed out that China has indisputable sovereignty over islands in Nansha and its adjacent waters.  On its own territory, China is undertaking some constructions to build civilian facilities and necessary defense facilities.”­ _ _ ” That is the right of preservations and self-defense that international law has provided for sovereign states that has nothing to do with militarization” “_ _ the Chinese side made it clear to the United States that it should stop sending its vessels and military aircraft close to Chinese islands and reefs and stop actions that undermine China’s sovereignty and security interest.”  Mattis and Wei also held one-on-one talks later Friday afternoon and perhaps  some specific risk reduction measures were discussed then. But there has been no public information on what was discussed or agreed—if anything.

Of course the leaders tried to put a best face on the lack of progress. They said the two sides committed to support peace and stability in the South China Sea, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea in accordance with international law.  Both sides committed to ensure air and maritime safety, and manage risks in a constructive manner.  But these were just platitudes, often stated but not observed.  If lowering tensions and the risk of a clash was the purpose, the meeting appears to have been a failure.

*Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Visiting Senior Scholar,National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

One thought on “US-China Defense Dialogue Dashes Hopes For Progress In South China Sea – Analysis

  • December 6, 2018 at 10:58 pm

    Nearly 100% of China’s trade with Africa, Europe, and the Middle East passes through the South China Sea. That’s their lifeline and they’re going to protect it. They have no choice. There are no Chinese warships in the Gulf of Mexico threatening our vital interests there. The are US warships in the South China Sea threatening their vital interests there. We’re over there threatening them. They’re not over here threatening us. They’re not backing down and they shouldn’t.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *