Mattis, China leaders strike positive tone despite tensions

BEIJING (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese leaders struck a largely positive public tone today, talking up increased military cooperation and open dialogue between the two powers despite security tensions and an impending trade war.

Mattis was on his first trip to China since taking the lead at the Pentagon. He met President Xi Jinping and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. In public comments, the two sides avoided mention of the topics that have recently dominated the relationship and ate up portions of the talks – Taiwan, Chinese militarization of the South China Sea and North Korea's nuclear program.

Instead, they focused on the importance of the U.S.-China military relationship – which Xi, who also heads the commission overseeing the People's Liberation Army, called the "model component of our overall bilateral relations."

"This is an important time in the history of China and the United States as we work our way forward," Mattis said as he sat with Xi in front of a bank of cameras and photographers before their private meeting. "It reminds me just how important this is for both of our nations. So I'm here to keep our relationship on a great trajectory, going in the right direction, and to share ideas with your leadership, your military leadership, as we look at the way ahead."

But the military relationship hasn't been plain sailing either. Last month, the Pentagon withdrew its invitation for China to participate in a multinational naval exercise in what it called "an initial response" to China's fortressing of man-made islands in the South China Sea.

Mattis also sharply criticized China's conduct in that strategic waterway at an international security forum this month, saying its placement of weapons systems was designed to intimidate and coerce others in the region.

After today's meetings, Chinese leaders made their positions on the sensitive topics clear in state media, emphasizing China's sovereignty claims in the disputed South China Sea and over self-ruled Taiwan.

"Regarding the issue of China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, our attitude is firm and clear," state broadcaster CCTV quoted Xi as saying. "Not a single inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors must be lost, while we are not seeking to take any bit of what belongs to others."

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