(Bloomberg) -- Jim Mattis arrived Tuesday in Beijing on the first China visit by a U.S. defense secretary in four years, as the Trump administration moves to push back against the country’s growing economic and military influence.
Mattis, who plans to also visit South Korea and Japan, was expected to press China’s leaders for continued cooperation on North Korea’s nuclear program, despite simmering tensions between the world’s two largest economies over everything from trade to Taiwan. Before departing for Asia on Sunday, Mattis said he intended to “have a conversation.”
“I want to go in right now without basically poisoning the well at this point,” Mattis told reporters. “I want to go in and do a lot of listening.” The Associated Press said Mattis arrived Tuesday afternoon.
The trip comes at a fraught diplomatic moment, as President Donald Trump prepares to enact tariffs and investment restrictions to curb what the White House says is China’s “economic aggression.” At the same time, security disputes have been accumulating between the two sides, with the Defense Department branding China a “strategic competitor” and rescinding the country’s participation in annual international military exercises that begin this week near Hawaii.
Still, Trump needs Chinese President Xi Jinping’s help to keep North Korea engaged with disarmament talks. Xi hosted Kim Jong Un in Beijing last week -- the North Korean leader’s third China trip since March -- in a demonstration of China’s enduring sway as the country’s top trading partner and wartime ally.
Ahead of Mattis’s visit, China’s state-run media said that dialogue was required to ensure that disputes don’t become flashpoints. “Although it is natural for big countries such as China and the U.S. to have areas of competition, the two should have the wisdom and the political will to control their rivalry, so that the worst-case scenario of a full-blown confrontation between them can be avoided,” the English-language China Daily newspaper said in an editorial Monday.
Since Xi hosted Mattis’s predecessor, Chuck Hagel, in 2014, China has launched a second aircraft carrier and outlined plans to build a “world-class” military power by 2050. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has replaced Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” with an “Indo-Pacific” policy that looks to draw India into the regional security framework as a counterweight to China.
Oh Ei Sun, senior adviser for international affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur, said that China was looking for Mattis’s guidance on the Trump’s administration defense and foreign policy objectives. “The U.S.’s strategic position vis-a-vis China, and indeed the major parts of the world, is undergoing a major paradigm shift at the moment -- from that of a global policeman to a more trade-focus posture,” Oh said.
Mattis’s arrival is just one in a series of diplomatic visits since Trump held an unprecedented summit with Kim two weeks ago in Singapore. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Beijing to brief Chinese leaders on the visit in the days after the meeting.
While China has pledged to play a “constructive” role in talks, the country has also urged the United Nations Security Council to revisit sanctions on Kim’s regime to facilitate negotiations. Trump has also suggested that his attempts to pressure China on trade might make it less cooperative in his “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea.
The defense secretary was expected to leave for Seoul on Thursday, where he would likely encounter questions about Trump’s decision to halt joint military drills with South Korea. He’ll then head to Japan, the U.S.’s closest ally in the region, before heading back to Washington.
Mattis was also likely to address U.S. concerns about China’s latest moves to assert control over the disputed South China Sea, including the deployment of military aircraft and missile batteries. Speaking at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, Mattis said such actions were causing the U.S. to reconsider its “cooperative stance” toward China and warned that Beijing risked “larger consequences” in the long term.
The Defense Department faces mounting pressure from U.S. lawmakers to increase military support for the democratically run island of Taiwan, which China considers a province. The Pentagon has also protested what it says are cases of U.S. pilots being injured by lasers, a claim that has been denied by China’s foreign ministry.
“China-U.S. military exchanges are important to bilateral relations and have made continuous progress,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing Tuesday in Beijing. “China and the U.S. will exchange opinions on bilateral and military relations.”
Graham Webster, a senior fellow with Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, said a key question was whether Trump’s tariff actions would lead Beijing to link economic issues and security cooperation. “If they do, I think it is a sign that U.S.-China relations are going to be in for a much more comprehensive set of bumps,” Webster said.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
With assistance from Editorial Board