Trade disputes and tensions in the bilateral relationship were momentarily parked. US Defense Secretary James Mattis and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe met in Singapore on Thursday in the margins of a regional meeting of ministers to ensure that, despite current pressures, the military relationship between Washington and Beijing it remains within the limits of sanity and in conditions to avoid that an accident could be transformed by mistake into a violent escalation.
The two had planned to meet in Beijing this month, but China canceled the meeting in September. A reaction to the US imposition of sanctions against the Chinese Ministry of Defense and several of its officials for the purchase of weapons from Russia in a week in which the two countries had also imposed and imposed tariffs on the respective imports.
The risks of the tone rising too much in the military tensions became clear when, earlier this month, a Chinese military ship was about to collide with a US destroyer in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Tensions had continued with flights of American planes last Tuesday on those waters that Beijing considers his
Now it was China who had suggested the meeting in Singapore, taking advantage of the meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN ).
Both military leaders greeted each other by shaking hands before starting a conversation that lasted ninety minutes and had a “direct and sincere” character, according to the Pentagon. The situation in the South China Sea, whose waters claim Beijing almost in its entirety and where the United States says it defends the freedom of navigation, was one of the main issues of the meeting.
“It’s an area on which we will continue to have differences and we will continue talking,” Deputy Defense Secretary Randall Schriver told the media.
The fact that they speak is positive. “Two nuclear powers with regional interests, if not global … We need to make sure that when we put ourselves in the way of each other, the situation will not go away and become something that can be catastrophic,” Schriver had previously declared to the press that accompanies Mattis.
Apart from the conversations with his Chinese counterpart, Mattis will take the opportunity to send a reassuring message to his partners in the region. It is the second trip of the Pentagon chief to the Asian state city in just a few months, after he participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, the main annual security forum in Asia.
If then the trip of Mattis was marked by the encounter that would happen days later between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, also in Singapore , his current participation in the summit of defense ministers of the ASEAN (Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Brunei) is trying to convince that the United States will not allow the area to be at the mercy of China.
“We consider Asian key to preserving interests in security and peace in the Pacific,” Mattis emphasized on Monday en route to Vietnam, his previous stop to Singapore. “The United States is an Indo-Pacific nation,” he reiterated to the journalists accompanying him during the trip, using the slogan that the Donald Trump Administration uses to refer to the region to counter China.
More than the words of Mattis, already pronounced in previous visits without clearing it up, it is the recent US military activity in the South China Sea that can make a difference between the countries that doubt the US commitment to the zone. Four members of the ASEAN, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, maintain territorial disputes with China in those waters.
The Philippines, the historic regional ally of the United States, has recently turned to Washington after its president, Rodrigo Duterte, advocated approaching Beijing at the beginning of his term two years ago.
Mattis himself met in late September with the Philippine Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana to discuss China’s military expansion in the neighboring seas both sides agreed to strengthen cooperation to modernize the Philippine military forces and increase their joint annual military exercises from 261 to 281.
But the attempts of the United States to strengthen ties with the region to stop the Chinese expansion find limits that are difficult to overcome.
On the one hand, China has been consolidated for almost a decade as the main trading partner of ASEAN, with Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand at the head, and on the other hand the US strategy of approaching India as a counterweight to China does not convince or strangers.