After months of soaring tensions centered on the trade war as well as a series of incidents in the South China Sea where Beijing has sought to make territorial claims on international waters, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has sought to calm and downplay the situation ahead of a Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore, where it's expected he could cross paths with Chinese officials.
Noting that it was not the U.S. goal “not out to contain China,” he said there were areas of mutually beneficial cooperation, but that there would be times they would “step on each other’s toes.” This includes, he explained, cooperation on North Korea and the United Nations.
He told reporters en route to the region:
“Obviously, we’re not out to contain China. We’d have taken an altogether different stance had that been considered. It has not been considered,” according to Bloomberg.
“We seek a relationship with China that’s grounded in fairness, reciprocity and respect for sovereignty,” he said.
“So we’re two large powers, or two Pacific powers, two economic powers. There’s going to be times we step on each other’s toes, so we’re going to have to find a way to productively manage our relationship,” Mattis added.
His softened rhetoric could mark a deescalation after China had previously canceled security talks planned for mid-October in Beijing amidst the two largest economies dueling it out in recent weeks in a trade battle.
This was exacerbated by President Trump's charge at the UN General Assembly in New York last month that China was meddling in the November mid-term elections - comments in which Trump further said President Xi Jinping might no longer be a friend.
Trump said at the UN:
"Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration." And added, "They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade."
"We have evidence. It will come out. Yeah, I can't tell you now, but it came - it didn't come out of nowhere, that I can tell you," he also told a press conference.
And while speaking at the neoconservative Hudson Institute early this month, Vice President Mike Pence added fresh fuel to the fire in an aggressive speech with a heavy anti-China focus.
“There can be no doubt,” Pence said, “China is meddling in America’s democracy.”
“Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy,” Pence charged. “As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
All of this also comes after a series of US aircraft and naval incidents with the Chinese military in the disputed South China Sea, including a recent close call between a US and Chinese destroyer in which Beijing attempted to warn the ship out of what it claims are Chinese territorial waters.