WASHINGTON — China has canceled a scheduled trip by Defense Secretary James Mattis that was to begin in 14 days, in the sharpest underscore yet to a deteriorating U.S.-China relationship — and to a once honored military-to-military dialogue.
Beijing formally halted the planned visit late last week, well after logistics for the visit were underway, Pentagon officials confirmed Monday.
Mattis was traveling to Europe and not available for comment. Last week he expressed rare public concern about the fraying military-to-military relationship, which is one of the prized priorities he sees in the relationship between the two world powers.
The increase in friction could affect other exchanges, including a planned visit to the U.S. by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, according to news reports.
The cancellation reflected the nature of the interaction between the two militaries, including the recent refusal of China to permit a port visit of a U.S. ship to Hong Kong.
Last week Mattis said he expects the current tension between the U.S. and China “will be sorted out” but acknowledged he is not sure what to make of China’s refusal to let the USS Wasp visit Hong Kong.
“The level participation and collaboration may go up and down at times (but) it is a strategic relationship that both sides recognize,” Mattis said told Pentagon reporters Wednesday.
On Sunday the USS Decatur conducted a 10-hour patrol near Chinese-fortified outposts in the South China Sea. It was the latest in an increasing number of U.S. and allied freedom of navigation challenges in sea and airspace to China’s self-declared sovereign areas.
According to Pentagon officials, the Decatur, which is a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Island chain.
Both the South China Sea and East China Sea are areas of growing tension, with China claiming islands and waters that other nations also claim.
The U.S. has increased the number of sailings and flights in both areas, often saying those excursions are pre-planned between from U.S. Pacific outposts to Japan and South Korea.
Over the weekend, the Air Force Times reported that China is considered establishing another Air Defense Identification Zone in the region, including in the South China Sea. That means China is claiming that area as its sovereign territory.
Last week, U.S. B-52 bombers flew through both the South and East China seas, just one of a handful of actions by both nations that ratcheted up the rancor.
On Tuesday, China turned down the Pentagon request to permit the USS Wasp to make a port visit next month at Hong Kong. That action was Beijing’s retaliation for the U.S. imposing sanctions last week on China for its purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018.
On Friday, the Navy released photos of the Wasp engaging in a live-fire exercise in the South China Sea.
Earlier last week, China ordered home Chinese navy commander Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, China’s naval chief, who was attending the 23rd International Seapower Symposium taking place in Rhode Island. Shen was to have a private meeting with Admiral John Richardson chief of Naval Operations.
China was further infuriated with the State Department’s approval to sell Taiwan $330 million in arms and parts. China considers Taiwan a rebel province that is part’s Beijing’s sovereign territory.
The dent in the relationship, especially the cancellation of the meetings, is a personal blow to Mattis’ strategy to engage his Chinese counterparts as a counter-balance to economic and political differences between Washington and Beijing. He used a June trip to China to build that relationship.
Mattis said last week that trade and other tensions between the U.S. and China have resulted in the two countries “going through one of those periods…where we have to manage our differences.”
He insisted that “we are not seeing a fundamental shift in the relationship.”