By Phil Stewart and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday became the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, starting a three-day trip with a goal of improving security dialogue with Beijing despite increasingly fraught Sino-U.S. relations.
Mattis, a former Marine general, has been highly critical of China’s muscular military moves in the South China Sea. The U.S. military even withdrew an invitation to China to join a multinational naval exercise which will start during Mattis’ visit, upsetting Beijing.
The trip comes against the backdrop of spiraling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade. Beijing is also suspicious of U.S. intentions toward self-governing and democratic Taiwan, which is armed by the United States, though China views the island as a sacred part of its territory.
Mattis, who was greeted with a floral bouquet as he exited his plane in Beijing, was cautious to avoid stoking tensions when speaking to reporters ahead of his trip. Mattis said he sought “open dialogue” at a strategic level when he met with military officials in Beijing.
“I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind’s already made up,” said Mattis, who was due to meet U.S. embassy officials on Tuesday.
“I’m going there to have a conversation.”
Such an approach would appear to be welcome in China, where widely-read state-run tabloid The Global Times said: “Both sides should learn to be good listeners.”
“Mattis’ visit suggests that the Trump administration is still willing to hold military dialogue with China,” it said in an editorial.
“Such bilateral talks will alleviate tensions between the two countries and is better than blindly guessing the other’s ‘strategic ambitions.'”
Still, the Global Times was quick to list major irritants in the U.S.-China relationship, including the U.S. decision to brand China a strategic competitor in President Donald Trump’s National Defense Strategy.
“China has no intention or ambition to challenge US global influence. On the contrary, Chinese are deeply concerned about Washington’s containment plans against Beijing,” it said.
Taiwan is a core concern of China’s when it comes to relations with Washington.
Ahead of Mattis’ arrival, Chinese state media said a formation of Chinese warships has been holding daily combat drills for more than a week in waters near Taiwan, and there have been frequent Chinese air force exercises near the island.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters that military-to-military relations had always been an important part of China’s ties with the United States, despite other problems the two countries currently have.
“I believe that as long as both countries have this desire to meet each other halfway, there are no difficulties that cannot be overcome,” Lu said.
Beijing hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week, and getting Beijing’s view of North Korea is expected to be high on Mattis’ agenda.
North Korean media said Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim reached an understanding on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula after discussing the outcome of the U.S.-North Korea summit.
“The People’s Republic of China also want to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That’s their policy,” Mattis said, raising the issue as one where there was some convergence in U.S. and Chinese interests.
Still, some analysts have seen China’s willingness to pressure North Korea as waning, including with sanctions enforcement.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking to reporters ahead of Mattis’ trip, suggested that the United States saw room for some improvement in sanctions enforcement along China’s border with North Korea. But the official added the U.S. expected Beijing to uphold its commitments.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)