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China-US relations

‘Mad Dog was one of the sane ones’: why China will miss James Mattis when he quits Trump’s White House

  • Analysts say Beijing may have lost a calming influence as relations between Beijing and Washington continue to deteriorate
  • One Chinese military figure praises outgoing Pentagon chief’s ability to think strategically and consider consequences of actions
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 12:25am

China will probably miss James Mattis after he steps down as US defence secretary next year, Chinese analysts have said.

They said his departure would add more uncertainty to the relationship between the two sides, which have become increasingly tense owing to a series of rivalries ranging from trade and technology to geopolitics and the military.

The former four-star Marine Corps general has been also been tough on China, but the tensions between the two militaries have been properly managed throughout his term and never escalated into conflict or crisis.

“Mattis has been pulling the reins,” said Qiao Liang, a Chinese Air Force major general and military strategist.

South China Sea, Taiwan could spark conflict in 2019, survey warns US

While Donald Trump’s choice of his replacement will determine future relations between the two militaries, Qiao said overall US-China relations were on a downwards trajectory.

He said he was “personally pessimistic” about military ties in the short-term, although he said both sides would stay “very cautious” and try to avoid armed conflict.

Qiao said that despite Mattis’s hawkish tendencies, as indicated by his nickname “Mad Dog”, he was still sane and rational.

“A hawk in the military tends to be more rational … he thinks beyond the current battle, and evaluates the overall strategic picture and its development and consequences,” Qiao said, referring to Mattis’ experience in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mattis has strongly criticised China’s “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea. Earlier this year, he withdrew an invitation to the Chinese navy to participate in the US-led Rimpac exercise, the world’s largest naval drill, citing Beijing’s aggressive activities.

He also intensified the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters to challenge China’s claims, saying the US would “compete vigorously” with Beijing.

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Mattis, who has a personal library of about 7,000 books, is also noted for his scholarly leanings and has on several occasions linked China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to its ancient tributary state system and branded it a new form of sinocentrism.

“But he also took China’s voice into consideration in some cases,” said Pang Zhongying, director for the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at Renmin University in Beijing.

Mattis was reportedly behind the Pentagon’s decision to turn down a request by the US State Department to send a Marine security detachment to guard the new building that houses America’s de facto embassy in Taiwan to avoid provoking China too far.

Pang said the Mattis had provided some stability amid the volatile and deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing, and said there were big questions over the impact his successor would make.

A recent survey by the US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations’ Centre for Preventive Action warned that the South China Sea and Taiwan were two of the flashpoints most likely to lead to a major crisis.

“The military-to-military relationship between China and US is in significant transition,” said Pang. “China will probably miss Mattis when he’s gone.”