Feb 07, 2018
Wei Liping: Mattis’ trip to Asia meant to strengthen negotiating stance with China
The author is a research fellow with the Pangoal Institution
Wei Liping: Mattis’ trip to Asia meant to strengthen negotiating stance with China

Mattis’ trip to Asia meant to strengthen negotiating stance with China

US Defense Secretary James Mattis met Indonesia's Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and President Joko Widodo during his week-long trip to Indonesia and Vietnam starting January 22. They talked about the North Korean nuclear issue, anti-terrorism and maritime cooperation.

Anti-terrorism has been one of the important subjects during Mattis' overseas visits since he took office. However, Western media has focused more on sovereignty-related issues, saying that the priority of Mattis' visit is maritime defense cooperation and "free navigation," which obviously targets China.

It is no secret that the focus of US' Asia-Pacific strategy is not anti-terrorism, but the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. The Donald Trump administration's new National Security Strategy released in late 2017 cites China and Russia as "strategic competitors." It accuses China of threatening the sovereignty of other countries in the Indo-Pacific region with hard-line steps and resisting US intervention in an attempt to build a non-democratic and oppressive world alien to American values and interests.

The US National Defense Strategy released days before Mattis' trip makes it clear that "Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security." It outlines 11 defense objectives, such as sustaining Joint Force military advantages, both globally and in key regions (Indo-Pacific); maintaining favorable regional balances of power in key regions and establishing an unmatched National Security Innovation Base. The report drew worldwide attention. It's clear to all that Mattis' Southeast Asia trip, as part of the US national defense plan, intends to counter China's strategic weight.

The US under Trump has not been conservative in its military and diplomatic strategies.  The US "Indo-Pacific Strategy" steadily strengthened the country's military influence in the Asia-Pacific region last year.

As China becomes the primary competitor of the US today, Washington conducts multilateral deployment and keeps the Asia-Pacific issue alive, forming a network to contain China.

On military affairs and economic development, Trump and Mattis are not as reckless as they appear to be. Instead, they are cautious in dealing with China.

While Chinese Ministry of National Defense had said in April 2017 that it will welcome Mattis to China as early as possible, it was until this month that the US defense department spokesman disclosed that Mattis would visit China during spring in an interview with Japan's Kyodo News Agency.

China is at the core of US' Indo-Pacific strategy. Faced with differences in Sino-US defense strategy, Trump and Mattis applied the trading mind-set in dealing with Beijing in an attempt to have an upper hand in negotiations. As long as Trump keeps the focus on the Indo-Pacific, Mattis would make extensive deployments to muddy the waters and prepare for negotiating with China.

While lashing out at Beijing, Trump and Mattis still intended to maximize cooperation with China given the two countries' complex common interests. Ryacudu told the Raisina Dialogue 2018 in New Delhi that tensions in the South China Sea are easing and should continue to be so for the sake of common interests. He added that they need to appreciate China's readiness to work together in strengthening regional security in Asia.

In the circumstances, avoiding a zero-sum game and realizing dynamic strategic balance and cooperation in the future is the real concern of both countries.

Mattis' visit to China during the spring will be an opportunity for pushing forward Sino-US defense exchanges. To keep pace with the Trump administration in the "smart war" with the US, China needs to stay focused in its strategy, protect its fundamental interests and help in development of the region and the world.

China needs to make the US realize that both countries are the beneficiaries, contributors and participants in the current international system, rather than geopolitical manipulators and saboteurs.

  • Sino-US relations; Asia
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