That US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is reportedly going to adopt a less confrontational stance toward China during his visit to Beijing than he has done recently is to be welcomed, given his earlier stance was in danger of "poisoning the well", as he tacitly acknowledged.
If, as he told reporters on his plane ahead of his arrival on Tuesday, he is willing to do "a lot of listening" and is not coming with any preset ideas, it will certainly be conducive to the two sides reducing some of the bad blood between them.
That China and the United States cannot see eye to eye on a variety of issues including the South China Sea and Taiwan has become more evident as their rivalry has intensified. Mattis has himself accused Beijing of "intimidation and coercion" in the South China Sea, and last month he rescinded an invitation to the Chinese navy to join the Rim of the Pacific multinational naval exercises organized by the US.
That the "irritants", as Mattis described them, do not evolve into flashpoints between the two countries requires them to discuss their differences candidly and find ways to resolve or manage them.
Both the South China Sea and Taiwan issues are bound to feature in Mattis' talks with high-ranking Chinese officials later this week as the two sides need to reduce the trust deficit that has developed as a result of the Donald Trump administration's strengthening of ties with the island’s independence-minded administration. And with the two militaries increasingly rubbing up against each other in these waters, it is important that the two sides have good communication.
Likewise, it is to be hoped that the US defense secretary is not going to pay lip-service to China's concerns while seeking China's support for the US' newly established engagement with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It is crucial that the hard-won results in pursuit of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be upheld and the current good momentum be maintained. And the positive developments that have been attained over the past few months should not be jeopardized by any misconceptions about Beijing's role and what it can deliver.
Although it is natural for big countries such as China and the US to have areas of competition, the two should have the wisdom and the political will to control their rivalry so that the worst-case scenario of a full-blown confrontation between them can be avoided.