‘Militaries should stabilise ties’: Chinese defence minister accepts Jim Mattis’ offer to visit United States
US and Chinese armed forces should step up cooperation between the two countries, senior Chinese defence official says
Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe has accepted an invitation from his US counterpart to visit the United States this year, a bright spot in relations as Beijing and Washington continue to tussle over security and trade.
Wei’s acceptance came on Thursday soon after Central Military Commission vice-chairman General Xu Qiliang told visiting US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis that the militaries of China and the United States should become stabilising forces for ties between the two countries.
Xu, China’s second most powerful military official, also told Mattis that the two sides should step up cooperation and control disputes.
“[I] hope both sides can step forward to increase mutual trust, deepen cooperation, properly handle differences and control risks,” state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Xu as saying.
On his first visit to Beijing since taking office, Mattis said the armed forces had a “crucial” role in bilateral ties and the two sides should work together to build “constructive military ties”.
According to Xinhua, Xu and Mattis also discussed Taiwan, a source of renewed tension since Washington stepped up military engagement with the self-ruled island that Beijing sees a breakaway province to be retaken by force if necessary.
From Beijing, Mattis headed to the South Korean capital Seoul, where he said the US would maintain its existing troop levels and its defence commitment to its key Asian ally.
A day earlier in what many observers saw as an usually tough warning, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Mattis that China would not give up “one inch of territory”.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, a busy maritime trade route that is also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Mattis has criticised China for “intimidation and coercion” in the area but Beijing has long blamed the US and its freedom-of-navigation operations in the disputed waters as the threat to regional stability.
In its latest show of power in the region, the US Navy sent its nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan on a four-day visit to the Philippines from Tuesday, the third such port call by a US aircraft carrier in four months.
Chinese analysts said Xi’s remarks on Wednesday might have been an attempt to clarify Beijing’s bottom line on territorial issues, including the South China Sea and Taiwan.
China Foreign Affairs University professor Su Hao said there was concern in Beijing that Washington might break with precedent on the key issues.
“This is a warning to the US that some of its behaviour in the South China Sea is seen as provocation to China, which could have a negative impact on bilateral ties,” Su said.
Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong said there was no sign that China or the US would change its stand on the South China Sea, so security rivalry between the two powers was likely to continue, though both sides would try to prevent it turning into a military confrontation.
“But the room to change the situation is getting smaller,” Ni said.
However, Liu Qing, an associate researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, said the continued communication between the two armed forces was a positive sign.
“[Mattis’ trip] is a timely visit, showing that the two sides are willing to de-escalate the situation,” Liu said