US defense chief seeks less contentious visit with Chinese
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, ALASKA—Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out plans for a less contentious, more open dialogue with Chinese leaders as he travels to Asia, less than a month after he slammed Beijing at an international conference for its militarization of islands in the South China Sea.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday en route to a stop in Alaska, Mattis avoided any of the sharp criticism of China that he had voiced recently.
Instead, he insisted that he was going into the talks with Chinese leaders without any preconceived notions, adding he wanted to focus on larger, more strategic security issues.
According to officials, a key topic of the discussions later this week will be the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the role China can play, considering its long-standing friendship with North Korea.
“I want to go in right now without basically poisoning the well at this point. I’m going there to have a conversation,” Mattis told reporters on his plane.
“I do not want to immediately go in with a certain preset expectation of what they are going to say. I want to go in and do a lot of listening,” he added.
Mattis’ more diplomatic tack reflects the US administration’s recognition of China’s crucial influence on Korea as negotiations move ahead to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
One senior US official said that while Mattis would willingly lay out America’s position on China’s military buildup in the South China Sea and other points of contention, the Pentagon chief didn’t want to open the conversations with “the irritants.”
Instead, the goal is to have higher quality talks about the two countries’ military relationship, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Last month, however, Mattis abruptly disinvited China from a multinational exercise in the Pacific that will begin in a few days—in retribution for Beijing putting weapons systems on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
And days later, he publicly threatened “much larger consequences in the future” if the militarization continued.
China recently has deployed antiship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and other equipment on the Spratly Islands, and landed a bomber aircraft on Woody Island.
China says it is within its right to build up defenses on islands in the South China Sea that it believes are its sovereign territory.
Many nations fear that Beijing will use the construction on the islands to extend its military reach and potentially try to restrict navigation in the South China Sea.
It’s all but certain the Chinese will raise those issues with Mattis, as well as Beijing’s long-held opposition to increasing US contacts with Taiwan. China claims the self-ruled island as its territory.
Focus on North Korea
For the United States, however, North Korea will be a primary topic in the talks with senior Chinese leaders.
And while the United States would like to see China use its influence to reinforce the denuclearization negotiations with North Korea, it also wants Beijing to remain committed to enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang, as part of the pressure campaign.
China also is pleased that the United States has suspended any major military exercises with South Korea as part of the nuclear negotiations.
Mattis said on Sunday that the Pentagon canceled two Marine military exchanges as well as the larger Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise this fall, because the defense department considered them consistent with what President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had agreed on at the summit about two weeks ago.
The United States has also long been frustrated that China doesn’t share much information about any war scenarios or other contingencies it has in place in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula or the collapse of the North Korean government.
By improving its relationship with Beijing, Washington believes it could better prepare for any problems and be able to coordinate more effectively with the Asian giant.
7th trip to Asia
This is Mattis’ first trip to China, both personally and as defense secretary.
Mattis has traveled to Asia seven times during his 17-month tenure as defense secretary, and this marks his third visit so far this year.
In addition, Mattis will travel to South Korea and Japan to meet with his defense counterparts as well as other national leaders. —AP
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