Fri, Oct 19, 2018 - Page 1 News List

US, China defense ministers look to boost strained ties


US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, left, shakes hands with Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the ASEAN security summit in Singapore yesterday.

Photo: AFP

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his Chinese counterpart yesterday sought to normalize military relations that have dramatically soured in recent weeks over trade and sanctions tensions.

The much-anticipated meeting between the Pentagon boss and Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) saw the men address long-standing frictions — including Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea — but also centered on strengthening ties to withstand political crises such as the one currently engulfing the two nuclear powers.

Mattis “repeated our desire for a durable relationship that is a stabilizing force in the overall relationship,” US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver told reporters after the nearly 90-minute meeting on the sidelines of a security summit in Singapore. “When we have times of differences and irritants, we should seek to deepen our contact, particularly at the high level, strategic level, so that we can talk through differences.”

A meeting between Mattis and Wei was supposed to take place in Beijing over the weekend, but it fell through after China declined to make Wei available.

The snub came as China reacted angrily after Washington imposed sanctions following Beijing’s purchase of Russian fighter jets and missiles.

Beijing’s other actions included scrapping a planned port visit of a US warship to Hong Kong, and canceling a meeting between the head of the Chinese Navy and his US counterpart.

Tensions then reached a dangerous level when a Chinese warship sailed extremely close to a US destroyer as it conducted a “freedom of navigation” operation challenging China’s extensive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

The contested waterway, where China has built a series of military facilities on islets and reefs, was a subject of “significant” discussion, Schriver said, but no progress was made in resolving the issue or the other perennial point of friction — Taiwan.

“We’re going to continue to have differences,” Schriver said. “They weren’t resolved at this meeting and during this discussion, and they probably won’t be in a next discussion. There will be issues that are long-term challenges to manage.”

Mattis’ attempts to carve a better relationship with the Chinese military stands in contrast to the anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from the White House.

US President Donald Trump has frequently assailed China over its economic policies and earlier this month, US Vice President Mike Pence issued a litany of complaints, accusing Beijing of “predatory” trade practices and military “aggression,” among other charges.

Mattis has made eight trips to the Asia-Pacific region as Pentagon chief and a primary mission has been to encourage nations to stand up to China in the South China Sea, but Schriver indicated that they remain too intimidated to do much on this front.

“In some instances, other countries may not have the confidence given China’s strength to always speak up, but [Mattis] wanted to let Minister Wei know that he hears about it a great deal from other countries,” Schriver said.

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