Security Focus of Mattis, China Talks 06/25 06:11
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out plans for a less contentious, more
open dialogue with Chinese leaders as he travels to Asia, less than a month
after he slammed Beijing at an international conference for its militarization
of islands in the South China Sea.
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AP) -- Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out
plans for a less contentious, more open dialogue with Chinese leaders as he
travels to Asia, less than a month after he slammed Beijing at an international
conference for its militarization of islands in the South China Sea.
Speaking to reporters on his plane Sunday en route to a stop in Alaska,
Mattis avoided any of the sharp criticism of China that he had voiced recently.
Instead, he insisted that he is going into the talks with Chinese leaders
without any preconceived notions, and wants to focus on larger, more strategic
According to officials, a key topic of the discussions later this week will
be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the role China can play,
considering its longstanding friendship with North Korea.
"I want to go in right now without basically poisoning the well at this
point. I'm going there to have a conversation," said Mattis. "I do not want to
immediately go in with a certain preset expectation of what they are going to
say. I want to go in and do a lot of listening."
Mattis' more diplomatic tack reflects the U.S. administration's recognition
of China's crucial influence on Korea as negotiations move ahead to get North
Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
One senior U.S. official said that while Mattis will willingly lay out
America's position on China's military buildup in the South China Sea and other
points of contention, the Pentagon chief doesn't want to open the conversations
with "the irritants." Instead, the goal is to have higher quality talks about
the two countries' military relationship, said the official, who spoke on
condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations on the trip.
Last month, however, Mattis abruptly disinvited China from a multinational
exercise in the Pacific that will begin in a few days, in retribution for
Beijing putting weapons systems on manmade islands in the South China Sea. And
days later he publicly threatened "much larger consequences in the future" if
the militarization continued.
China recently has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles,
electronic jammers and other equipment on the Spratly Islands, and landed a
bomber aircraft at Woody Island. China says it is within its rights to build up
defenses on islands in the South China Sea that it believes are its sovereign
Many nations fear that Beijing will use the construction on the islands to
extend its military reach and potentially try to restrict navigation in the
South China Sea.
It's all but certain the Chinese will raise those issues with Mattis, as
well as Beijing's long-held opposition to increasing U.S. contacts with Taiwan.
China claims the self-ruled island as its territory.
For the U.S., however, North Korea will be a primary topic in the talks with
senior Chinese leaders. And while the U.S. would like to see China use its
influence to reinfore the denuclearization negotiations with North Korea, it
also wants Beijing to remain committed to enforcing sanctions against the
North, as part of the pressure campaign.
China also is likely pleased that the U.S. has suspended any major military
exercises with South Korea as part of the nuclear negotiations.
Mattis said Sunday that the Pentagon cancelled two Marine military exchanges
as well as the larger Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise this fall, because the
defense department considered them consistent with what President Donald Trump
and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had agreed on at the summit about two weeks
The U.S. has also long been frustrated that China doesn't share much
information about any war scenarios or other contingencies it has in place in
the event of a conflict on the Korean peninsula or the collapse of the North
By improving its relationship with Beijing, Washington believes it could
better prepare for any problems and be able to coordinate more effectively with
This is Mattis' first trip to China, both personally and as defense
secretary. He said he has been in Hong Kong several times. The last Pentagon
chief to visit China was Chuck Hagel in April 2014.
But both Mattis and his immediate predecessor, Ash Carter, have spent a
great deal of time in Asia, in the wake of the much-vaunted U.S. increased
emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region. Mattis has traveled to Asia seven times
during his 17-month tenure as defense secretary, and this marks his third visit
so far this year.
During his stop in Alaska, Mattis will visit a key element of the America's
missile defense system at Fort Greely, the strategic missile interceptors. Sen.
Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, flew with Mattis from Washington and is expected to go
to Fort Greely with him.
The Pentagon budget calls for increasing the number of interceptors from 44
to 64, and that additional 20 will be located at Fort Greely. Critics question
the reliability of the interceptors, arguing that years of testing has yet to
prove them to be sufficiently effective against a sophisticated threat.
In addition, Mattis will travel to South Korea and Japan to meet with his
defense counterparts as well as other national leaders.