U.S. defense chief in China amid rising tensions

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis receives a bouquet upon arrival at an airport in Beijing, China June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis kicks off his first day of talks with Chinese officials on Wednesday, part of an effort to bolster security dialogue as Sino-U.S. tensions rise.

Mattis, the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, was expected to first meet his Chinese counterpart, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

Later in the day, he is expected to meet other top Chinese officials, possibly including President Xi Jinping.

Mattis, a former Marine general, has been highly critical of China’s muscular military moves in the South China Sea. The U.S. military even withdrew an invitation to China to join a multinational naval exercise which will start during Mattis’ visit, upsetting Beijing.

The trip comes against the backdrop of spiraling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade. Beijing is also suspicious of U.S. intentions toward self-governing and democratic Taiwan, which is armed by the United States, though China views the island as a sacred part of its territory.

Speaking ahead of the trip, Mattis said he sought “open dialogue”.

“I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind’s already made up,” said Mattis. “I’m going there to have a conversation.”

As Mattis arrived, Chinese state media said a formation of Chinese warships has been holding daily combat drills for more than a week in waters near Taiwan, and there have been frequent Chinese air force exercises near the island.

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