BEIJING: US Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived in Beijing on his first ever visit to China on Tuesday, aiming to find room for military cooperation as security tensions between the two superpowers edge higher.
With Washington and Beijing locked in an escalating trade war, and the Pentagon alarmed over China’s placement of weapons on disputed islands in the South China Sea, Mattis said he would seek areas where the the two sides share interests, including persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Mattis is scheduled to meet his Chinese counterpart, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, for the first time as well as other top officials, to “take measure” of their views.
The last time a US defence secretary visited China was four years ago, and communications between the two militaries need strengthening, Mattis said.
“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.
In a statement ahead of the visit, Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said they should “work together to make the bilateral military relationship an important stabilising factor in the relationship between the two countries.”
But China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, warned in an editorial on Tuesday that “Mattis should listen rather than criticise”.
“If the US fails to understand China’s sense of insecurity, or misinterprets the necessity of the actions that China has taken to alleviate this sense of insecurity, tensions will be inevitable in Sino-US ties,” the nationalist tabloid wrote.
Focus on military relations
The Pentagon chief, who will also visit South Korea and Japan on a four-day visit to the region, arrives as the trade threats between Washington and Beijing intensified, with tariffs looming next week.
But he made clear that his talks would be limited to military-to-military relations and the North Korea nuclear negotiations.
US defence strategists are broadly concerned by China’s rapid advances in military technology and its increasing ability to project its offensive military might far into the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, where the United States has been uncontested since World War II.
Mattis said in a speech to Naval War College graduates last week that China harbours “long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order”.
He also said recently that Chinese President Xi Jinping reneged on his promise three years ago to then President Barack Obama to never militarise the South China Sea.
At a strategic forum in Singapore three weeks ago, Mattis said Beijing’s deployment of high end weapons systems in the South China Sea was for the purposes of “intimidation and coercion”.
The Chinese retorted that Mattis’ comments were “irresponsible”.
US officials are also concerned over Beijing’s stepped-up campaign to pressure Taiwan, a longtime ally of the United States despite the lack of official diplomatic relations.
On the eve of Mattis’ trip, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen told AFP in an interview that the global community needs to work together to “constrain China and also minimise the expansion of their hegemonic influence”.
Mattis was confident the two sides could find some areas to work together on, including North Korea.
A senior Pentagon official said they see China as continuing to enforce sanctions on Pyongyang as negotiations on a denuclearization plan continue.