- The Washington Times - Friday, November 9, 2018

Top U.S. and Chinese defense officials and diplomats traded rhetorical barbs over ongoing American and allied military operations in the South China Sea, undercutting the message of cooperation and unity between the two world powers during bilateral talks held in Washington on Friday.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis reiterated Washington’s stance that U.S. fighters, bombers and warships would “continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows” in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific.

“We continue to operate in international waters and airspace as all nations are entitled to,” Mr. Mattis said during a press conference at the State Department alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Central Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

His comments came after Mr. Yang claimed freedom of navigation through the contested waterways of the South China Sea, or or overflight across its airspace, is not being contested by Beijing, adding that any claim to the contrary and to use such claims as a reason for military action is “unacceptable”

For his part, Mr. Wei said Washington and Beijing “stand to gain from cooperation and stand to lose from confrontation” in the South China Sea. “Confrontation and conflict … spells disaster for all,” he added.

“The situation in the South China Sea is trending toward greater stability,” Mr. Wei noted, adding that Beijing continues to “urge the U.S. to play a constructive role” in maintaining that stability.

Aside from Friday’s press conference at the State Department, Mr. Mattis and Mr. Wei are also scheduled to hold one-on-one talks Friday afternoon at the Pentagon.

Discussions over a possible meeting between the two defense leaders had been percolating since October, when they held a sideline meeting during a regional national security conference in Singapore. But U.S.-China military relations quickly soured thereafter. Tensions reached a head when the White House nixed a previously scheduled visit by Mr. Mattis to Beijing that month.

Friday’s meetings at the State Department and Pentagon were part of the second annual U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue. Aside from the South China Sea, both sides sought to reinforce the notion of increasingly positive ties between the two countries.

“The U.S. is not pursuing a Cold War or containment policy with China,” Mr. Pompeo said, adding “cooperation remains essential on many, many issues” ranging from a denuclearized North Korea to curbing Iranian influence across the globe.

“The military-to-military relationship is moving forward and maintaining growth, despite some problems” between the U.S. and China, Mr. Wei said. China’s military buildup in the South China Sea “represents a growing force for world peace … and is transparent and for the protection of the Chinese people,” and is not a threat to the interests of the U.S. and its Pacific allies, he added.

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