SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tried to lower the temperature on the array of hostilities between Washington and Beijing on Thursday, saying it is up to the militaries of the two competing global superpowers to act as a stabilizing force amid rising political tensions.
During an hour-and-a-half meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Mattis sanded down some of the sharp edges from Vice President Mike Pence’s pointed critique of China this month. Mattis urged the two militaries to talk through their many differences and even repeated an invitation for Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, to visit the United States, according to a senior Defense Department official who was in the meeting.
But the cordial tone belied deep tensions that showed no signs of abating Thursday. China, as it usually does, brushed off Mattis’s complaints about Beijing’s continued militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, other countries present at a meeting in Singapore of Southeast Asian nations continued to resist US entreaties to add their voices to the US challenge of China’s claims in the disputed area. And two of those countries — Malaysia and Thailand — even prepared for a joint naval exercise with China that US officials worry is part of a larger effort by Beijing to peel away US allies.
Mattis, for his part, was hampered by the continued fallout and speculation from President Trump having questioned Sunday whether the defense chief would remain on the job, calling Mattis “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” during an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Mattis later told reporters that Trump had called him to reassure him that he was “100 percent” behind the defense secretary, but in Asia there has been speculation about how long Mattis will be around.
The Mattis-Wei meeting comes as the United States and China continue to lurch from one crisis to the next. Trump accused China last month of meddling in the US midterm elections, an accusation Beijing rejected.
Pence’s Oct. 4 speech has been widely viewed as foreshadowing a new Cold War between the United States and China, and with the exception of Mattis, the Trump administration has only turned up the volume since.
On Wednesday the White House said it planned to withdraw from a 144-year-old postal treaty that has allowed Chinese companies to ship small packages to the United States at a discounted rate.
It’s part of a concerted push by Trump to counter China’s dominance and punish it for what the administration says is a pattern of unfair trade practices.
The military relationship that Mattis is pushing as an island of stability is also taking hits.
Mattis was supposed to begin his trip to Asia this week with a stop in Beijing for talks with Wei, but China canceled the visit, citing annoyance over sanctions Trump imposed on a Chinese state military company for buying weapons from Russia, and Washington’s plans to sell $330 million in military equipment to Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own.
The biggest source of tension between the Pentagon and Beijing continues to be the South China Sea. China claims almost all the South China Sea, and strongly protests US military patrols there.
The United States, for its part, considers the sea to be international waters and sends bombers and warships through every so often to make that point.