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International Relations

US and China defense chiefs seek to head off inadvertent clashes

Near-collision in South China Sea brings two sides to the table

The U.S. has flown B-52 strategic bombers, like the one pictured at right, over the South China Sea this month and last month.   © AP

BEIJING/WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on Thursday discussed ways to avoid unintended military encounters as both sides step up military activity in the South China Sea amid heightened tensions over trade.

The two officials spoke for about an hour and a half, 30 minutes longer than planned, on the sidelines of a meeting in Singapore among defense ministers of Association of Southeast Asian Nation members and other dialogue partners.

Mattis expressed to Wei the need to deepen high-level bilateral ties to reduce the risk of inadvertent conflict, according to Reuters. The defense chiefs agreed to work toward maintaining long-term relations.

Mattis was originally set to visit Beijing this month for bilateral diplomatic and defense talks, but the plans were shelved after the U.S. move to sanction a Chinese military official further eroded their relations. At the same time, a near-collision between Chinese and American warships in the South China Sea on Sept. 30 served as a cautionary tale of how stepped-up military activity could lead to unintended military clashes, prompting them to hold talks on the sidelines of a Singapore meeting.

The near collision at the end of September took place as China sought to ensure the U.S. warship conducting so-called freedom-of-navigation operations would not enter its territorial waters. The U.S. is maintaining a high-profile presence in the area. It flew two B-52 strategic bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, over the region Tuesday, CNN reported, after having flown the aircraft there late last month as well.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and China's Defense Minister Wei Fenghe greet each other ahead of talks in Singapore.   © AP

Moreover, the U.S. military is planning large-scale military drills in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in November -- a time when China will be on extra-high guard as Chinese President Xi Jinping is considering visiting the Philippines, with which Beijing also has fraught maritime relations. Meanwhile, China will conduct its own joint exercises with Thailand and Malaysia in the South China Sea starting Saturday.

The Trump administration has been broadening the scope of its criticism against China beyond economic fields to the military. According to the Associated Press, Mattis pointed out in the meeting Chinese military activity viewed by Washington as "irresponsible." Yet China views the neighboring sea as an area of core interest. While no agreements were reached at the meeting, the defense chiefs appeared to have explored each other's red line.

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