At the invitation of Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited China from June 26 to 28. This was Mattis’s first visit to China after he took office as the US Secretary of Defense and also the first visit by a US Secretary of Defense in four years. Against a background where China-US relations are facing many complicated factors, a series of positive and constructive achievements made by this visit are of great significance to the development of the mil-to-mil relationship between China and the US.
Enhancing cooperation is an inevitable choice to keep in step with the changing situations
During Mattis’s visit to China, the Chinese side and the US side exchanged in-depth opinions on the mil-to-mil relationship between the two countries and reached a series of important consensuses. From his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to the other three discussions with top Chinese military leaders, “cooperation” was one of the words mentioned most frequently.
President Xi pointed out in the meeting that the world today is undergoing major development, changes and adjustments, and the countries have become more interdependent, and thus to adapt to the changing situations, enhancing cooperation should be the inevitably correct choice. China and the US should promote the development of their relations by sticking to the principle of mutual respect and win-win cooperation.
Mattis stated that the US and China were not destined to be rivals, and instead, the development of China was beneficial to the US and the world. He believed that the US and China, as two great countries, could promote world peace and development through cooperation. Over the past 40 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the relations have been developing all the time despite the ups and downs.
At present, President Xi and President Trump are leading powerfully the China-US relations to stability. Regardless of controversies between China and the US, the interests of the two countries are deeply intertwined and friendly cooperation continues.
During the talks, the Chinese side expressed its willingness to work with the US side to explore how best to establish great power relations in order to secure win-win cooperation. Both sides agreed that China and the US shared common interests in many aspects, their common points were more important than disputes, and thus they should look into the future and enhance their cooperation.
China and the US have enjoyed a time-honored friendship. In the meeting, the two sides mentioned many times that the two countries fought together on the anti-fascist front in the past. Mattis also recalled his father’s experience of supporting the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. During that period, his father Mattis senior, a merchant seaman, shipped wartime supplies to India after going across the dangerous waters and then to China over the Hump.
Mattis said that in the course of the US-China relations, cooperation was always the mainstream while confrontations were interludes, and both countries should build up confidence from the long-term mutual respect and cooperation and make great efforts to build a mutually respectful, positive, and powerful relationship between the two militaries and two countries.
Amid the recently rising negative factors faced by the China-US relations, the positive attitude reflected by Mattis’s visit shows that the US believes the threats and challenges of China are on the rise on the one hand, and on the other hand it realizes the importance of cooperation between the two countries. This further proves that cooperation is the only correct choice between China and the US and win-win cooperation is the only way to a better future.
Improving communication, enhancing mutual trust, and dealing with disagreements properly are the mutual aspirations
Enhancing mutual trust is a foundation for friendly cooperation, and improving communication is the precondition for enhanced mutual trust between the two countries. The heads of the two countries have broad consensuses on this.
Since last year, President Xi and President Trump have met each other three times, had over ten conversations, jointly established four high-level dialogue mechanisms between China and the US, and planed major exchange and cooperation projects for the two countries’ mil-to-mil relationship in person. Mattis’s visit is the practical action of the two militaries to implement the consensuses reached by the heads of the two countries.
A “listening trip” is what Mattis saw this visit to China as. The members of the US delegation were from high-level policy-making departments. According to Mattis, this arrangement was to ensure that they directly and accurately understand China’s strategic intentions and better realize the consensus reached by the heads of the two countries on the development of the US-China relations.
In the meeting, the Chinese side expressed frankly that China would adhere to the path of peaceful development rather than follow the path to seek hegemony and pose a so-called “threat” to other countries and China would never embark on expansion. This is China’s real intention, neither an expedient nor a diplomatic slogan or a propaganda catchword.
Without any intention to challenge or replace the position of the US, China sincerely hopes to develop better relations with the US. Instead of being vicious and taking strategic rivalry as the purpose, positive competition based on the strategic cooperation between China and the US should be promoted.
Mattis expressed his gratitude to the Chinese side for their honest interpretation, and he explained the strategic intentions of the US to the Chinese side on matters such as the mil-to-mil relationship between the two countries and the National Defense Strategy of the US.
He mentioned that the lack of mutual trust was the root cause of many issues in the current mil-to-mil relationship between the two countries, and the next mission of both sides was to strive hard to address this root-cause issue through great and pragmatic cooperation.
Dealing with disagreements properly and controlling risks are the issues of high concern to both sides. During the talks, the two sides exchanged in-depth opinions on the Taiwan issue, the South China Sea disputes, and so on. Both sides agreed that the US and China as two great powers would inevitably have different opinions, and should focus on world and regional peace and stability, face disagreements properly, improve dialogues, avoid conflicts, and strive hard to find the greatest “common denominator”.
“I grew up in Washington State. I used to swim in the Pacific Ocean and always thought the Pacific Ocean as a bridge connecting the US and China instead of a barrier between the two,” Mattis said. The US was not trying to hold back China’s progress and development and current challenges would not constrain the US-China relations. In the past, both sides overcame many difficulties and he believed that the two sides would be able to handle more challenges in the future, Mattis added.
Endeavoring to drive the mil-to-mil relationship to be the stabilizer of China-US relations
The mil-to-mil relationship has always been a crucial part of the China-US relations. It is the expectation of President Xi that the two militaries could improve communication, enhance mutual trust, deepen cooperation, control risks, and drive the mil-to-mil relationship between China and the US to become the stabilizer of the China-US relations.
Mattis used to be a soldier. He fought in the Gulf War and the Afghanistan War in his 41-year military career. During the talks, he said, “I have fought a lot of battles and I know how to fight. But I have also written to many parents to tell them their children could not come back home any more. I don’t want to write such letters again.”
He repeatedly expressed that a conflict between the two militaries would be a disaster of both the two countries and the whole world. As for China and the US, cooperation would benefit both while conflicts would harm both.
Both sides agreed that the two militaries should fully understand the vital interests of the other, handle disagreements properly, avoid accidents and conflicts as possible as they can, and shouldn't jeopardize fundamental interests of people from the two countries.
In recent years, with the attention and promotion of the heads of the two countries, the mil-to-mil relationship between China and the US has been developing smoothly, and exchanges at all levels and cooperation in all fields has been going deeper. In this visit, a series of consensuses were reached by the militaries of the two countries on strengthening high-level exchanges, using dialogue mechanisms properly, enhancing front-line risk management and control, and so on.
In addition, the two sides also achieved a consensus that Chinese defense minister would visit the US within this year. This is also the first time that China and the US plan to exchange visits at the level of defense ministers within one year, which sends out a clear signal that the two militaries are devoted to establishing dialogues and cooperation...
The China-US relationship is one of the most important bilateral relations in the world and one of the most complicated ones. Although Mattis’s visit cannot resolve all the disagreements between China and the US, the common will and positive attitude to deepen exchanges and cooperation by both sides are the key force which will drive the continuous development of the China-US relations during any up and downs. If the two sides take this opportunity to stay in communication and expand cooperation, the China-US relations will be promoted in a healthy and stable manner.
The authors are Liu Lin and Yin Hang. The article was published on the PLA Daily on July 2, 2018. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online.