U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in China on June 26 for a three-day visit, becoming the first defense chief to visit China since President Donald Trump took office.
Relations between China and the United States recently have grown tense over trade disputes. Mattis, known for his criticism of China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea, will likely seek dialogue over this and other contentious diplomatic issues in Asia, such as China’s increasingly aggressive posturing over Taiwan and the denuclearization of North Korea.
Mattis, who was greeted with a floral bouquet as he exited his plane in Beijing, was cautious to avoid stoking tensions when he spoke to reporters.
“I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind’s already made up,” said Mattis. “I’m going there to have a conversation.”
In May, China’s air force landed bombers on several artificial islands the Chinese regime had built in the South China Sea. Soon after, the United States withdrew its invitation for China to participate in a U.S.-hosted joint naval exercise in the Pacific Ocean—the world’s largest—citing its South China Sea activities as counter to stability in the region.
Then, in early June, the United States flew bombers over the disputed Spratly Islands, challenging China’s claims of sovereignty there.
Around the same time, Mattis criticized China in a strongly worded speech given at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit held in Singapore earlier this month.
“When it comes down to introducing what they have done in the South China Sea, there are consequences,” said Mattis. “There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost with China if they do not find the way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations who have interest.”
Statements like these have irritated the Chinese regime.
Meanwhile, the United States has sought to strengthen relations with Taiwan, counting it as a strategic ally in countering China’s influence in the region. The United States recently unveiled a newly built de facto embassy in Taiwan, and in March, Trump signed into law a bill that would allow more high-level diplomatic exchanges between the two nations.
Beijing considers Taiwan a part of its territory, and such engagement appears to further irk Chinese authorities.
Chinese state media expressed as much ahead of Mattis’s visit. In an article published in the state-run Global Times, it called the United States’ involvement with Taiwan “dirty tricks.”
On the issue of North Korea, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters ahead of Mattis’s trip that the United States saw room for improvement in China’s enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, especially in trading across the border. Media reports have noted increased activity since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Beijing.
Reuters contributed to this report.