The top U.S. and Chinese military officials sought to tamp down tensions and reset their deteriorating relationship Thursday after months of tit-for-tat quarrels that at times threatened to escalate into a military confrontation between the Pacific’s two biggest powers.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told China’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, that the United States wanted a “durable relationship,” despite growing strains over China’s building of military facilities in the South China Sea, expanded U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a costly trade war between Washington and Beijing, and other friction points.
If the two defense officials made headway, they didn’t show it. Their only public interaction was a stiff handshake before the meeting, as Mattis smiled at a tight-lipped Wei in his green People’s Liberation Army uniform.
“This was a reengagement and trying to reestablish high-level communication,” said Randall Schriver, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for Asia, who briefed reporters after the 90-minute meeting in Singapore. “We’re going to continue to have differences. They weren’t resolved in this discussion and they probably won’t be in the next discussion.”
The talks, on the sidelines of an annual meeting of Asian defense ministers, come after an especially fraught period.
Early this month, a Chinese military vessel nearly rammed the Decatur, a U.S. destroyer, near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Four days later, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech accusing China of “predatory” economic practices, military aggression against the U.S. and efforts to undermine President Trump and harm his reelection chances.
The next week, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, engaged in a frosty exchange in Beijing. Pompeo said the world’s two largest economies were stuck in a “fundamental disagreement” over a range of issues, from trade to maintaining sanctions on North Korea.
U.S. officials stressed that Wei had sought the Singapore meeting with Mattis after he had abruptly canceled planned talks in Beijing this month, forcing the Pentagon chief to scrub his visit there.
The U.S. officials portrayed Wei’s outreach as a sign that Beijing wants to lower temperatures ahead of a possible meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, possibly on the sidelines of the G-20 economic summit that starts Nov. 30 in Buenos Aires.
Inside the Trump administration, the Pentagon has emerged as a voice of moderation in dealing with China.
Mattis told reporters traveling with him that U.S. policy in the South China Sea had not changed dramatically from that pursued by the Obama administration, for example, and he noted that U.S. and Chinese diplomats have cooperated at the United Nations in maintaining sanctions on North Korea.
“We are not seeking a more militarily confrontational approach” with China, Mattis said.
Hard-liners in the White House have pressed a more belligerent approach in hopes of forcing China to make concessions in trade talks. Chinese officials, in turn, have pushed back both to register displeasure with Trump’s trade agenda and as a show of force in the western Pacific, which the U.S. military has dominated since the end of World War II.
One potential flash point is the Taiwan Strait, where the Pentagon is weighing plans to send an aircraft carrier battle group for the first time in decades to show support for Taiwan. Doing so would be certain to prompt a furious response from Beijing, which views the island as an indivisible part of its territory.
In his meeting with Mattis, Wei raised concerns about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Mattis assured Wei that the U.S. had not changed its long-standing policy that Taiwan is part of China, Schriver said.
Unlike previous administrations, however, Pentagon officials now openly discuss preparing for possible war against China — a scenario that until recently was treated as something to plan for but not mention in public.
Mattis and Wei agreed military ties between the two nuclear-armed nations could be a stabilizing force in an otherwise turbulent relationship, Schriver said.
Both sides have reasons to walk back from confrontation, at least temporarily.
U.S. officials want China to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and to enforce economic sanctions against Pyongyang — help that Beijing is unlikely to provide if it is locked in a fierce rivalry with the U.S. on other issues.
Trump may back away from his combative strategy if he can nail down a trade deal with Beijing, some experts say.
“There’s no question many senior Trump officials are determined to ratchet up the pressure on China,” said Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon and State Department official during the Obama administration. “Yet one wonders how wedded Trump himself is to this view.”
Trump’s decision in March to pull out of a proposed regional free-trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership left the U.S. with less leverage to contest China’s growing power in the region, Chollet said.
In the charged environment, avoiding an inadvertent military clash or small incident that suddenly escalates into a crisis has taken on greater urgency, according to U.S. officials.
“We need to make sure that when we step on each other’s toes, it doesn’t escalate into something catastrophic,” Schriver said.
There has been a cascade of disputes in recent months.
Among them: Beijing denied a U.S. warship permission to dock in Hong Kong; the U.S. sanctioned a Chinese company for buying Russian-made weapons; the State Department approved a $330-million military equipment sale to Taiwan; and the U.S. sanctioned the People’s Liberation Army for buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and warplanes.
In addition, a 27-year-old Chinese engineering student in Chicago was charged with spying for China, a Chinese intelligence official was arrested in Belgium and extradited to the U.S. to face espionage charges, and the CIA director publicly warned of Chinese cyberhacking and other threats.
In a rare step, the Pentagon deployed two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the South China Sea to reinforce the U.S.’ rejection of China’s claim to the airspace. The Pentagon also withdrew an invitation to China to participate in multi-country annual Pacific military exercises, known as Rimpac, that it had previously joined.
Some experts contend that China has outmaneuvered Washington and that a more forceful U.S. policy is overdue.
China “is pushing below the level of war to demonstrate that they have greater willpower than we do,” Michael J. Green, an Asia expert at Georgetown University and a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration, told a forum at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Frankly, I think they won at that for a while.”
The most likely spot for a military clash is in the resource-rich South China Sea, which has heavily traveled shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potential oil, gas and other undersea mineral deposits.
China claims most of the sea and its scattered islands, though Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei have overlapping claims. Beijing has built military facilities on three man-made islands that it says are defensive in nature. The U.S. says they threaten vital shipping in international waters.
Critics say the Trump administration has not demonstrated an effective counter to China’s buildup other than sending warships and aircraft near the disputed islands to demonstrate freedom of navigation, much as President Obama did.
“Their policy in the South China Sea is the Obama administration policy that already failed,” said Greg Poling, an expert in the maritime disputes at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“They have spent a lot less time on their soapbox talking about the South China Sea than the Obama administration did.”
Privately, U.S. military officials say tougher options, including larger shows of force, are possible. But other than Vietnam and Indonesia, most countries in the region have shown little appetite for public confrontation with Beijing.