Chinese President Xi Jinping told US Defense Secretary James Mattis Wednesday the two countries must sustain the “good momentum” of their military relationship, amid US worries about China’s projection of power across the Indo-Pacific.
Mattis, visiting Beijing to take the measure of China’s global security ambitions, especially in the South China Sea, told Xi he wants to keep the bilateral military relationship on an even keel and find areas to cooperate.
“Ï’m here to keep our relationship on the right trajectory, keep it going in the right direction and to share ideas with your military leadership, as well as look at the way ahead,” the Pentagon chief told Xi.
There were no references to rising bilateral tensions, in both military and economic relations, in public remarks ahead of their meeting in the Great Hall of the People.
But Mattis blasted China earlier this month over the militarisation of built-up islets it claims in the South China Sea, and President Donald Trump has sparked a trade war with the country.
In consequence, the deterioration of relations was barely below the surface of Xi’s and Mattis’s diplomatic remarks.
“The Chinese-US relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world,” Xi said.
“Över the recent years this military-to-military relationship has had good momentum… I would like to hope this momentum of the military-to-military relationship would continue.”
The two met after Mattis spent a day in meetings with other top Chinese officials, including Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and Politburo member and former ambassador to the United States Yang Jiechi.
Mattis, on his first visit to China, came in search of a “very open and honest dialogue” about the long-term strategic goals of both countries.
Ahead of the visit he acknowledged the tensions but said he believed he could find areas where the two militaries could cooperate, in hopes of building better communications and reducing the chances of conflict.
“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 before the visit.
But only weeks beforehand he had accused Xi of reneging on a promise not to place weaponry on contested islands in the South China Sea.
Beijing has installed missile batteries and recently landed long-range bombers on some of the reclaimed outposts.
It argues that the islands are Chinese territory and says it has the right to install military facilities to protect its sovereignty.
Yet the projection of force has challenged the US Navy’s decades-old pre-eminence in the region. Mattis, speaking at a security conference in Singapore in early June, said China’s actions were aimed at “intimidation and coercion”.
Showing US displeasure, the US disinvited the Chinese from an exercise of some two dozen Pacific Rim navies that was beginning this week.
Earlier Wednesday Mattis was greeted at the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army by an honour guard and marching band playing the US and Chinese anthems.
Defence Minister Wei called the visit crucial “to increase the strategic trust between our countries”.
He said Mattis’s words “carry weight in both the military and political circles back in the United States”.
Besides hoping to strengthen military ties, Mattis was expected to discuss ways to maintain pressure on North Korea to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons.
China is Pyongyang’s closest ally and Washington sees its cooperation in preserving an economic embargo on North Korea as crucial.
Mattis will continue meeting Chinese officials through Thursday morning, and then fly to Seoul and Tokyo. He will reaffirm the US security commitment to its East Asian allies amid some nervousness about Trump’s embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.