US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has previously been critical of China, accusing the country of "intimidation and coercion" in the region and claiming it is "out of step with international law" with its "militarizing" of islands in the South China Sea, struck a more positive tone during his talks in Beijing on Wednesday.
Given the depths of suspicion and misunderstanding revealed in his earlier remarks, and the inclination of US President Donald Trump to unleash a torrent of similar remarks whenever it suits him, Mattis' promise ahead of his visit to do "a lot of listening" was both refreshing and welcome. Although it would be unrealistic to expect that even by lending an ear to China's words the differences between the two sides can be resolved by his two-day visit.
But the fact that the two militaries are willing to maintain open and honest dialogue speaks of the resilience and maturity of the two countries' military-to-military relations, which are critical to the broader Sino-US relationship and to control risks.
And it is encouraging that the two defense departments are working hard to ease tension and promote mutual trust, as Wei Fenghe, Chinese state councilor and minister of national defense, said on Wednesday. Especially at the moment, when the differences between Beijing and Washington have become more evident because of their trade quarrel and the Trump administration's impetuous use of Taiwan as a pawn in its game.
Both sides know that good bilateral military communication is an important stabilizing factor for relations between the two countries, and will help avoid miscalculation and confrontation.
During his talks with Mattis on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping expressed confidence in the two sides being able to properly manage their divergences, saying the China-US relationship, "one of the most important" in the world, must be treasured.
And he clarified that China will no longer let the historical sovereignty issues slide; it will not give up an inch of the territory of its ancestors. But it does not want anything that belongs to others.
However, while the Pacific is big enough for both countries, as Xi again pointed out, it takes two to tango. For Sino-US relations to improve, Washington must respond with good faith. Mattis struck the right note when he responded to Xi's show of goodwill by saying "we are assigning the same high degree of importance to the military-to-military relationship, as you just noted".
But this perspective is not the general approach the US has taken to relations under the presidency of Donald Trump, and for the two countries to continue to build on their common ground the US must also treasure the relationship and match such words with actions.
History shows that it serves both countries' interests if they can effectively manage their differences and respect each other’s core interests.