US defence secretary and his Chinese counterpart meet in Singapore on Thursday
Pentagon officials hope Mattis-Wei meeting will push US-China ties back in the right direction
After a rocky few months, US officials say they sense that relations with the Chinese military may be stabilising.
Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence was meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe on Thursday, on the sidelines of an Asian defence ministers' conference.
Just weeks ago, Mr Mattis had planned to travel to Beijing for talks with Mr Wei, but that fell through when the Chinese made it known that Wei would be unavailable -- one of several signs that tension in the overall US-China relationship was spilling over into the military arena.
Mr Wei and Mr Mattis were in Singapore this week for an Association of South East Asian Nations conference where China's increasing assertiveness on the world stage was an expected topic.
The Pentagon's top policy official for Asia and the Pacific, Randall G Schriver, said on Wednesday that the Chinese had requested the Singapore meeting with Mr Mattis. He said US officials took this as a sign that the Chinese are interested in stabilising the military relationship.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him earlier this week, Mr Mattis acknowledged that the relationship has been difficult in recent times.
"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. "And the military relationship is to be a stabilising force in the relations between the two countries."
As recently as June, when Mr Mattis was in Beijing for his first visit to China as Pentagon chief, President Xi Jinping called the US-China military relationship the "model component of our overall bilateral relations".
Since then, however, a series of irritants have shaken military-to-military ties. Mr Schriver said the trigger for recent tensions was the Trump administration's decision in September to sanction the Chinese military for buying Russian fighter planes and missiles.
That action was taken under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act passed by Congress in 2017. Beijing also strongly criticised a US announcement of further arms sales to Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing insists is part of China.
China responded to these events with strong criticism, followed by a decision to cancel a planned visit to the Pentagon by the head of the Chinese navy and a confrontation in the South China Sea between a Chinese warship and a US Navy destroyer, the USS Decatur. The Chinese also denied a request for a US Navy ship to visit Hong Kong.
"That may turn out to be a relatively short bump in the road," Mr Schriver said Wednesday, suggesting that the Singapore meeting could nudge things back in the right direction, although the US administration remains concerned that the Chinese have achieved a key goal by militarising disputed land features in the South China Sea that Washington warned against.
"The Chinese have changed some facts on the ground. That's clear," Mr Shriver said, referring to the placement of military infrastructure and weapons on some of their land reclamation projects in the South China Sea.
"That's a change that they were able to successfully pull off. The question is: To what end, and how effective is that in terms of enforcing a very expansive, illegitimate sovereignty claim?"
China views Washington's criticism of its activities in the South China Sea as unnecessary meddling in its internal affairs.
Earlier this year, Mr Mattis cited China's military presence on some land features in the South China Sea as his reason for disinviting the Chinese military from an international naval exercise in the Pacific.
As part of a US effort to enlist support for countering and limiting China's militarization of the South China Sea, Mr Mattis earlier this week visited Vietnam, which has its own disputed territorial claims there. Mr Schriver noted that smaller nations like Vietnam, with limited naval and economic power, have reasons to express their concerns about China privately rather than in public.
"Countries choosing to be more public and vocal, there is a level of risk with China, but I think confidence is growing that our presence is going to be consistent," Mr Schriver said. "They do face potential risk angering China."