SINGAPORE — After a rocky few months, Pentagon officials say they sense that relations with the Chinese military may be stabilizing.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was meeting Thursday with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of an Asian defense ministers' conference.
Just weeks ago, Mattis had planned to travel to Beijing for talks with 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 U.S.-China relationship was spilling over into the military arena.
Wei and Mattis were in Singapore this week for an Association of Southeast 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, told reporters on Wednesday that the Chinese had requested the Singapore meeting with Mattis. He said U.S. officials took this as a sign that the Chinese are interested in stabilizing the military relationship.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him earlier this week, 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 stabilizing force in the relations between the two countries."
As recently as June, when Mattis was in Beijing for his first visit to China as Pentagon chief, President Xi Jinping called the U.S.-China military relationship the "model component of our overall bilateral relations."
Since then, however, a series of irritants have shaken military-to-military ties. 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 criticized a U.S. 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 U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Decatur. The Chinese also denied a request for a U.S. Navy ship to visit Hong Kong.
"That may turn out to be a relatively short bump in the road," Schriver said Wednesday, suggesting that the Singapore meeting between Wei and Mattis could nudge things back in the right direction, although the U.S. administration remains concerned that the Chinese have achieved a key goal by militarizing disputed land features in the South China Sea that Washington warned against.
"The Chinese have changed some facts on the ground. That's clear," 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 internal Chinese affairs.
Earlier this year, 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 U.S. effort to enlist support for countering and limiting China's militarization of the South China Sea, Mattis earlier this week visited Vietnam, which has its own disputed territorial claims there. 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," Schriver said. "They do face potential risk angering China."