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Mattis heads to China for talks with Chinese military leaders

Mattis speaks to reporters aboard Air Force E-4B on June 24, 2018. (U.S. Department of Defense)
June 25, 2018

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will make his first visit to China this week where he will hold strategic talks with Chinese military leaders in Beijing amid growing tensions between the two nations.

While en route to Alaska, Mattis told reporters aboard Air Force E-4B – a militarized Boeing 747 – that he will gauge China’s strategic approach to the United States, according to The Washington Times.

“On our relations with China, obviously we’re reviewing our military-to-military relationship [to] make sure it’s aligned within our larger strategic framework,” Mattis said.

The upcoming meetings will include talks with China’s senior generals in what Mattis described as an exchange of “strategic perspectives” of mutual concerns to “determine where we have common interest and where our interests diverge.”

Mattis left Joint Base Andrews on Sunday to embark on a six-day visit to Asia, during which he will stop in Alaska, China, South Korea and Japan.

In January, the Pentagon released a new national defense strategy in which it identified China and Russia as strategic military threats.

The strategy also deemed China a strategic competitor due to threats from Beijing’s unfair economic and trade policies.

China recently deployed advanced anti-ship missiles and air-defense missiles on disputed islands in the South China Sea. China has built up approximately 3,200 acres of new islands in recent years, including substantial militarization with facilities, runways, bunkers, storage areas and now missiles.

The missile deployments violate a pledge made by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Sept. 2015 summit with then-President Barack Obama.

Jinping promised not to militarize the disputed islands, which are also claimed by the Philippines Vietnam, and several other countries in the region.

Last month, the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to the Chinese navy from participating in the upcoming U.S.-led international naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).

Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, told the South China Morning Post that the deteriorating military ties between the U.S. and China could lead to conflict.

“This is a critical time for managing the worsening relationship. So we should watch for who Mattis meets – if it’s just his counterpart, or whether he meets a more senior figure,” Pang said.

Earlier this month, Mattis criticized China for “intimidating and coercion” toward Taiwan, an ally of the U.S.

China recently flew bombers near the island, located 100 miles off China’s southern coast. China deems Taiwan a “wayward province” that may need to be controlled through force.

However, Mattis declined to characterize tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea and China’s theft of American technology.

“We have larger issues and you see those being handled,” he said.

Mattis said: “I think the way to address issues between our two nations is to first establish a transparent, strategic dialogue.”

“And the way to get to the other issues that are vexing is to start with strategic transparency as a way to get to operational transparency,” he added.

Mattis said that his intention is to approach the meetings with an open mind.

“I’m going there to have a conversation. … I’m going there to do a lot of listening and identification of common ground and uncommon ground on the strategic level,” he said.

Details of the meeting are anticipated at the end of the week.