James Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, speaks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The U.S. ‘Obviously’ Doesn’t Want to Contain China, Mattis Says

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of Defense James Mattis played down tensions with Beijing, saying the U.S. was “not out to contain China” and was cooperating whenever possible, but that there would be times they would “step on each other’s toes.”

“Obviously, we’re not out to contain China. We’d have taken an altogether different stance had that been considered. It has not been considered,” he told reporters Monday on a plane en route to Vietnam.

The U.S. ‘Obviously’ Doesn’t Want to Contain China, Mattis Says

“We seek a relationship with China that’s grounded in fairness, reciprocity and respect for sovereignty,” he said.

He said Washington is cooperating with China on issues including North Korea and the United Nations.

“So we’re two large powers, or two Pacific powers, two economic powers. There’s going to be times we step on each other’s toes, so we’re going to have to find a way to productively manage our relationship,” he said.

Mattis spoke on his way to attend defense ministers’ meetings hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore, where he could cross paths with Chinese officials.

China canceled high-level security talks with Mattis that had been planned for mid-October in Beijing, the New York Times reported on Oct. 1.

Escalating Rhetoric

Trump called Mattis “sort of a Democrat” in a weekend interview with “60 Minutes.” He also hinted the former U.S. Marine Corps general may be planning to quit. Mattis is seen as a force for stability in foreign policy in the Trump administration, managing crises from North Korea to Syria under a leader who prides himself on his unpredictability.

Mattis “hasn’t told me” that he plans to leave, Trump added, without directly answering the question of whether he’d like the Pentagon chief to depart.

Mattis’s latest attempt to soften the White House’s messaging came amid escalating rhetoric between the U.S. and China in recent weeks, as the world’s two largest economies remain locked in a trade battle.

Maneuvers in the disputed South China Sea, including a close call between a U.S. and a Chinese destroyer, fueled Beijing’s concern that the U.S. wants to stop China from threatening its dominance of the Indo-Pacific.

Vice President Mike Pence ramped up the administration’s anti-China rhetoric in a speech, saying Beijing has created a “a whole-of-government approach” to sway U.S. public opinion, including spies, tariffs, coercive measures and a propaganda campaign.

And Trump accused the Chinese of meddling in U.S. congressional elections while at the United Nations General Assembly, saying President Xi Jinping might no longer be a friend.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.