US, China set for high-level talks to avert South China Sea clashes
- Mike Pompeo and James Mattis to host China’s Yang Jiechi and Wei Fenghe in Washington on Friday
- Dialogue intended to reduce friction after tensions at sea and cancelled meeting in September
The US and China will hold a second round of high-level diplomatic and security talks in Washington on Friday in a show of willingness for the two sides to continue communications amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis will host Yang Jiechi, China’s director of the Office of Foreign Affairs, and its Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe for the dialogue, along with further delegations on both sides.
The talks come as tensions between the two nations run high. An earlier discussion scheduled in September between the two defence ministers was cancelled because of Beijing’s frustration over Washington’s sanctioning of China for buying a Russian weapons system.
The announcement of fresh dialogue indicates that the two sides have been willing to reduce the risk of miscalculation with tensions high in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
In the past two months, the US military has flown B-52 bombers and conducted “freedom of navigation” operations in the vicinity of the South China Sea, and US warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait in support of Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing views as a renegade province.
Almost two weeks ago, President Xi Jinping told the military section responsible for monitoring Taiwan and the South China Sea to “prepare for war”, while Wei vowed that the mainland would not cede “a single inch” of its territory.
“China is irritated by what we do,” General Joseph Dunford Jnr, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Duke University event on Monday. “But again, we try to explain to them that there is a rules-based international order and we talk about a free and open Indo-Pacific based on international law norms and standards.”
Dunford said the two militaries had established a staff-to-staff dialogue in August 2017 as an effort to establish routine contact. Beyond that, “the Chinese have been reluctant”, he said.
However, the top general at the Pentagon indicated that both sides had been in communication to reduce potential misunderstandings. “About four months ago,” Dunford said, “we did a tabletop exercise to talk about a potential crisis as a confidence-building measure and again, to increase transparency and reduce the risk of miscalculation.”
Susan Thornton, the US’ former top East Asia diplomat, has urged Washington and Beijing to build trust through “consistent and mature communications” to avoid a military mishap.
During a press briefing last Thursday, Admiral John Richardson, the US Navy’s chief of naval operations, also called on China to return to a previously agreed-upon code of conduct for at-sea encounters.
The US admiral referred to a case in late September in which US and Chinese warships almost collided when sailing near an islet claimed by Beijing in the Spratly Islands.
The Chinese ship came within 41 metres (135 feet) of the US vessel, leading the Pentagon to accuse the PLA Navy of conducting an aggressively “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre”.