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China-US relations

US defence chief Jim Mattis visiting Beijing at ‘critical time’ for China-US military ties

Both sides recognise need to step up communication to ease tensions over South China Sea and Taiwan, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2018, 10:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2018, 11:47pm

China and the United States are moving to contain military tensions and the risk of misjudgment, with US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis heading to Beijing next week.

The visit comes after Mattis rebuked Beijing this month for its military build-up in the South China Sea amid worsening ties between the nations, and analysts say both sides recognise the need to step up communication to keep the situation from spiralling out of control.

Mattis announced on Wednesday that he would go to Beijing next week before travelling to Seoul. Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan confirmed the visit, adding that details would be released on Friday.

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He is making the trip after military ties between the two sides rapidly deteriorated in the past months over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The US has said it would challenge China’s militarisation of disputed features it has built in the South China Sea, and help improve the self-defence capabilities of Taiwan, around which Beijing has recently stepped up military drills.

If the vicious spiral continues, it could lead to conflict between the two navies, said Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

“This is a critical time for managing the worsening relationship,” Pang said. “So we should watch for who Mattis meets – if it’s just his counterpart, or whether he meets a more senior figure.”

The Pentagon last month withdrew China’s invitation to take part in this summer’s multinational Rim of the Pacific naval drills as “an initial response” to what it called “China’s continued militarisation of the South China Sea”.

Meanwhile, the National Defence Authorisation Act for 2019 recently passed by the US Senate calls for American troops to participate in Taiwan’s most important annual war games. The bill must go through the reconciliation process in the US House before it goes to US President Donald Trump for his signature and becomes law.

The Pentagon is also reportedly considering sending warships through the Taiwan Strait and increasing arms sales to Taiwan after China’s air force conducted exercises, which included its H-6K strategic bomber, around the self-ruled island.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province, to be brought under its rule by force if necessary.

Tensions between the two countries came to the surface at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore early this month, when Mattis criticised Beijing for its activities in the South China Sea, including deploying weapons systems “for the purpose of intimidation and coercion”. He also said the US would “compete vigorously” with China’s actions in the disputed waters if needed.

Soon after, the US Air Force flew a pair of B-52 bombers over the Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal. In April, its navy carried out ship manoeuvring operations in a freedom of navigation challenge within territorial waters claimed by Beijing.

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Military analyst Yue Gang said that it was necessary to maintain ministerial-level contact and exchanges and that an adequate flow of information was vital during times of confrontation on the front line, though he did not expect any dialling back of tensions.

“Treating China as a strategic rival is an established policy of the Trump administration, and that won’t change,” said Yue, who is a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel.

He added that Mattis needed to reassure the Chinese side that his forces would not attack Beijing’s facilities on its man-made islands in the South China Sea, while the Chinese military should also convey the message that its expansion would not pose a threat to the US, and that Taiwanese independence was a “red line”.

“Communication is needed to prevent the situation from getting out of control,” Yue said.

Pang added that the US would also be seeking Chinese assistance on the North Korea denuclearisation process.