BEIJING (Reuters) – Only with mutual respect and by avoiding confrontation can China and the United States develop together, but China will resolutely defend its sovereignty and security, China’s defense minister told his visiting U.S. counterpart on Wednesday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former Marine general, has been highly critical of China’s muscular military moves in the disputed South China Sea. The U.S. military even withdrew an invitation to China to join a multinational naval exercise that will start during Mattis’ visit, upsetting Beijing.
Mattis is visiting against a backdrop of spiraling tension between Beijing and Washington over trade.
Beijing is also suspicious of U.S. intentions toward self-governing and democratic Taiwan, which is armed by the United States. China views the island as a sacred part of its territory.
“China upholds peaceful development, and China’s military unswervingly protects the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe told Mattis, according to China’s Defence Ministry.
“China and the United States can only develop together if we maintain no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Wei added.
“China and the United States two militaries must implement the consensus of the two countries’ leaders, increase mutual trust, strengthen cooperation and manage risks to turn ties between the two militaries into a factor for stability in the bilateral relationship.”
Mattis, the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, told Wei he expected all of his conversations in Beijing would be characterized by an “open and honest” dialogue, like the one he had with Wei.
“I’m here because of the importance that we in the U.S. military place on the military-to-military relationship with the PLA,” Mattis said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.
“The military-to-military relationship is critical to the broader relationship between our two countries,” Mattis added, in comments in front of reporters.
Mattis also invited Wei to visit him at the Pentagon.
Wei was similarly upbeat in his public remarks.
“Your visit to China this time is … a new positive factor to the military-to-military and state-to-state relationship,” Wei said.
Wei, who only assumed his position in March, noted a goal outlined by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump “to increase the strategic trust” between the United States and China.
“Indeed, it will be significant for us to further build our strategic confidence and even cooperation,” he said.
Xi, meeting later in the day with Mattis, said if their countries were able to develop a good relationship, it would benefit global peace, stability and prosperity.
“The China-U.S. relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world,” Xi said, as they met in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
In recent years, China-U.S. military ties have maintained a good momentum and China hopes this can continue, Xi added.
Mattis said to Xi his talks in China had been “very, very good”.
The Chinese statement made only passing mention of the South China Sea, Taiwan and North Korea, citing Wei as telling Mattis what China’s positions were on those issues.
As Mattis arrived, Chinese state media said a formation of Chinese warships has been holding daily combat drills for more than a week in waters near Taiwan, and there have been frequent Chinese air force exercises near the island.
While China and the United States have tried hard to keep lines of communication between their militaries open, especially at the senior level, they are deeply suspicious of each other.
The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea with its island-building work there, while China has been angered by U.S. naval patrols through the strategic waterway.
In May, the United States withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major U.S.-hosted naval drill, the Rim of the Pacific exercise, known as RIMPAC and previously attended by China, in response to what Washington sees as Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea.
Still, the two have broad strategic common interests, such as ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
China welcomed this month’s historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, where Kim reaffirmed a commitment to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, while Trump said he would halt joint U.S.-South Korean “war games”.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd and Michael Martina; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel