US Defense Secretary James Mattis has met his Chinese counterpart in Beijing amid increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea and President Donald Trump’s trade policy.
Mattis arrived Wednesday on his first tour to the Asian country in what seems to be a bid to find areas of cooperation despite a mounting military rivalry between the two superpowers.
In opening remarks, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe described the visit as essential “to increase the strategic trust between our countries.”
He said Mattis’ remarks “carry weight in both the military and political circles back in the United States.”
Mattis said, in response, that military relations were critical to the deeper relationship between the two countries, expressing hope that the discussions would involve “very open and honest dialogue.”
His visit comes at the time that there is currently a bitter dispute over China’s placement of advanced weapons systems on built-up islets in the South China Sea, a move that has challenged decades of the US Navy’s preeminent presence in the region.
In the meantime, there is also growing Chinese pressure on US ally Taiwan as well as worsening trade and technology conflicts which all have aggravated the already strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
Mattis is expected to meet with President Xi Jinping late Wednesday following his talks with other senior officials as part of his trip to Asia that will include visits to regional allies Seoul and Tokyo.
At a security conference in Singapore earlier this month, Mattis condemned the Chinese “militarization” of its Southeast Asia outposts, noting that Xi promised former US President Barack Obama that Beijing would not weaponize the islets.
China’s objective was “intimidation and coercion,” Mattis said at the time.
However, ahead of his visit, he toned down his rhetoric, saying he did not want to “poison” the atmosphere ahead of talks with Xi, Wei and others.
“I think the way to address issues between our two nations is to first establish a transparent strategic dialogue: how do the Chinese see the relationship with us developing, how we see it developing,” he said.
Beijing argues that the islands are Chinese territory and says it has the right to install military facilities to protect its sovereignty.
Among the purposes of Mattis’ visit are to take a measure of his counterparts to assess their long-term strategic intentions and discuss Chinese cooperation in getting North Korea to agree to a denuclearization program.
Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held a historic summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12 in an effort to establish new relations and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.