China, US defence chiefs meet on sidelines of Asean meeting in Singapore
Wei Fenghe and James Mattis have ‘straightforward and candid’ discussion, commit to ‘finding time’ for further negotiations
China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe held talks with his US counterpart James Mattis at a key regional security summit on Thursday, after a meeting between the two men scheduled for earlier in the month was cancelled due to growing tensions between the two countries.
The officials talked for almost 90 minutes on the sidelines of the annual Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) defence ministers’ meeting in Singapore, the main focus of which was the disputed South China Sea.
Randall Schriver, a US assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told reporters after the meeting that Mattis described the meeting as “straightforward and candid” and that he had made clear Washington’s views on China’s increased militarisation of the strategic waterway.
“That’s an area where we will continue to have differences and talk through,” Schriver said.
On the possibility of Wei visiting the US for more talks, he said there “was a commitment on both sides to try to find a time”.
The high-level meeting came after planned talks between Mattis and Wei were cancelled by Beijing, apparently in retaliation for Washington sanctioning a unit of China’s military for buying Russian fighter jets and missiles in September.
It also came amid rising tensions between the two powers, the temperature of which rose still further when a Chinese warship and a US destroyer almost collided in the South China Sea last month.
In another move that could escalate tensions, the US Pacific Air Force conducted “routine” exercises over the South China Sea on Tuesday, operations that have previously drawn Beijing’s ire.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing was “verifying the situation”, but reiterated it would take “resolute measures when necessary to defend our sovereignty and security interests”.
“China always respects and safeguards freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that all countries enjoy under the international law,” he said.
“But we firmly oppose any country taking moves that undermine the littoral countries’ sovereignty and security interests, and disturb regional peace and stability.”
Shriver said earlier that the Chinese side had requested the meeting in Singapore with Mattis, which he cited as evidence Beijing was interested in “keeping things normal and stable, as are we”.
“We need to make sure that when we step on one another’s toes it doesn’t escalate into something that would be catastrophic,” he said. “The Chinese are interested in having a military relationship that’s a stabilising force in the overall relationship.”
Analysts said it was likely Beijing proposed the talks on Thursday as a “good faith gesture” to de-escalate tensions and return to dialogue mechanisms between the two militaries.
Wei Zongyou, an international studies professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said there was a recognition that the militaries needed to continue communicating to avoid accidents, after the recent near collision in the South China Sea.
“The last meeting was cancelled because China wanted to show it was not happy with the US sanctions, but China does not want to see Sino-US relations head towards conflict and does not want their communication channels to be suspended,” he said.
“At the same time, China will communicate to the US that it is concerned and dissatisfied with the sanctions on China’s military and the [United States’] freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.”
Zhang Baohui, a Chinese security specialist at Lingnan University, said China was eager to restore communication channels particularly given reports that the US Pacific Fleet had proposed a series of exercises from the South China Sea to the Taiwan Strait as a warning to Beijing.
“The recent escalation of tensions between the two sides is starting to worry the Chinese,” he said. “The current confrontational posture from both sides may create a real crisis, so I think after cancelling Mattis’ visit, the Chinese may have had second thoughts on their military to military relationship.”
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But tensions would not easily abate, as US President Donald Trump’s administration was unlikely to shift its “cold war posture” towards China, Zhang said.
“The two countries are on a collision course,” he said. “They were always on some sort of collision course, but now it looks as if the pace and intensity of the conflict are increasing.
“The meeting between the two militaries won’t affect anything unless Trump changes his mind, or else nothing will change.”
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press