U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese leaders struck a largely positive public tone Wednesday, talking up increased military cooperation and open dialogue between the two powers despite security tensions and an impending trade war.
Mattis was on his first trip to China since taking the lead at the Pentagon. He met President Xi Jinping and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. In public comments, the two sides avoided mention of the topics that have recently dominated the relationship and ate up portions of the talks — Taiwan, Chinese militarization of the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear program.
Instead, they focused on the importance of the U.S.-China military relationship — which Xi, who also heads the commission overseeing the People’s Liberation Army, called the “model component of our overall bilateral relations.”
“This is an important time in the history of China and the United States as we work our way forward,” Mattis said as he sat with Xi in front of a bank of cameras and photographers prior to their private meeting. “It reminds me just how important this is for both of our nations. So I’m here to keep our relationship on a great trajectory, going in the right direction, and to share ideas with your leadership, your military leadership, as we look at the way ahead.”
But the military relationship hasn’t been plain sailing either. Last month, the Pentagon withdrew its invitation for China to participate in a multinational naval exercise in what it called “an initial response” to China’s fortressing of man-made islands in the South China Sea. Mattis also sharply criticized China’s conduct in that strategic waterway at an international security forum this month, saying its placement of weapons systems was designed to intimidate and coerce others in the region.
After Wednesday’s meetings, Chinese leaders made their positions on the sensitive topics clear in state media, emphasizing China’s sovereignty claims in the disputed South China Sea and over self-ruled Taiwan.
“Regarding the issue of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, our attitude is firm and clear,” state broadcaster CCTV quoted Xi as saying. “Not a single inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors must be lost, while we are not seeking to take any bit of what belongs to others.”
U.S. officials described the talks as candid but successful. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, said the U.S. assigns the same degree of importance to the military relationship as China, and said the dialogue was “very open and honest.”
“Areas of disagreement were identified but not necessarily dwelled on,” said Randy Schriver, assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, who attended the meetings.
He said that when areas of disagreement came up, Mattis made the U.S. positions clear, including its long-standing and widely shared opposition to China’s militarization in the South China Sea.
“It’s not for one country to diminish what are international rights for navigation as defined in international waters,” Schriver said.
The meetings also came as a trade war brews between the world’s two largest economies. U.S. President Donald Trump has already imposed tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. And next week the United States is to start taxing $34 billion in Chinese goods and later add tariffs on an additional $16 billion in goods. Beijing has vowed to immediately retaliate with its own tariffs on U.S. soybeans and other farm products.
The trade issue, which isn’t in Mattis’ security portfolio, came up but was not a significant part of the conversations, said Dana White, Pentagon spokeswoman.
“What was consistent was the desire for a consistent military-to-military relationship as a stabilizing factor of the overall relationship,” said White.
Schriver said North Korea came up in every meeting, with both sides agreeing on the broad goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the need to support U.N. Security Council resolutions on sanctions against the North.
The U.S. is hopeful that Beijing, an ally of North Korea, can help push Pyongyang to follow through on its denuclearization commitment made at a summit between leader Kim Jong Un and Trump two weeks ago.
Uncertainties remain over North Korea’s intentions. It is still making improvements to infrastructure at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex, according to an analysis of June 21 commercial satellite imagery by 38 North, a Washington-based website that closely tracks developments inside the isolated nation.