Mattis meets with Chinese defense chief but no new agreements were struck

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis met on the sidelines of an Asian security conference with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe last week, though no new agreements were made.

That said, the meeting lasted 90 minutes — 30 minutes longer than it was scheduled.

One participant in the talks, Randall Schriver, the Pentagon’s top official for Asia-Pacific affairs, told the press that the Pentagon chief said the talks were “straightforward and candid” while asserting that high-level talks are more valuable during times of increased tension.

Navy Times reported:

Schriver said the discussions covered numerous issues but focused especially on the disputed South China Sea. “That’s an area where we will continue to have differences and talk through,” Schriver told reporters after the meeting.

Mattis and Wei discussed an existing U.S. invitation for Wei to visit the U.S., but details remain to be worked out, Schriver said.

“There was a commitment on both sides to try to find a time” for such a meeting, he added.

Analysis: The sideline talks took place amid several important developments in the South China Sea in recent days.

First of all, the foreign minister of Australia, a long-time U.S. ally, emphasized in a speech that her country’s security relationship with Washington was more important now than it’s been in decades due exclusively to China’s rise.

FM Marise Payne told an Australian Institute of International Affairs conference on 15 October that Australia must defend its interests in “a period of strategic uncertainty.”

Her comments followed an accusation in the Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper China Daily that Australia and Japan were “jumping on the U.S. bandwagon to contain China.”

“We have no doubt that the U.S. will remain an enduring presence in our region,” Payne said. “Other powers will rise, rivalries may intensify, but the United States will be here.”

“The challenges in the Indo-Pacific render our alliance as vital as it has ever been,” she added.

Meanwhile, several southeast Asian navies and China were participating in a regional exercise from 22-25 October in waters surrounding in southern China. Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the exercises were aimed at building trust and confidence — but make no mistake, they are also aimed at increasing interoperability between Asian warships not belonging to China.

The defense ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a joint declaration that the exercises would “enhance friendship and confidence between ASEAN member states’ navies and the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the U.S. Navy.”

Finally, a pair of U.S. warships passed through the Taiwan Straits Monday, ships that are part of the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group.

“USS Curtis Wilbur [DDG 54] and USS Antietam [CG 54] conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Oct 22, in accordance with international law. The ship transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” said U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Nate Christensen in an email to Navy Times. 

China has yet to respond as of this writing. 

There are a lot of moving parts here but they all have a common theme: Countering Chinese aggression. 

Whether via direct engagement or a show of force through a Freedom of Navigation Operation, the U.S. and her allies are determined not to ‘contain’ China, per se, but keep China’s aggression in check with constant contact. Allowing Beijing free reign will never satisfy its ambitions but only fuel more aggression.


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