A frank dialogue between Chinese and U.S. defense chiefs has taken the two countries into a temporary calm period after a series of rival military moves in the contested South China Sea.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agreed with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, on Friday to continue progress on a "crisis communications and deconfliction framework to reduce risk," the Defense Department said in a statement. Their meeting touched on Beijing's military expansion in the South China Sea, which is claimed by five other governments.
The U.S. side asked China to stop militarizing the sea, while the Chinese told the U.S. government to quit sending naval ships near China-held islets and said it would oppose any acts to split off those land forms. But both agreed that the military relationship "could be a stabilizing factor" in broader Sino-U.S. ties, the Defense Department added.
Analysts said dialogue such as this one in Washington normally brings about a calm period in Sino-U.S. military ties after a series of tougher moves, such as a near ship collision in the sea in September. They predicted the calm would last at least through a Nov. 30-Dec. 1 meeting between the two countries' presidents.
"I think every time countries meet, it's sort of a confidence-building measure," said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. "Having contact with each other is better than not having contact."
Few points of agreement
Neither Beijing nor Washington is expected to stop the activities that annoy the other. But both sides will "cool down" because of the meetings, said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
"It is very hard to ignore the fact that they don't actually agree on many things that are in fact the root problems of what we see in the South China Sea," he said.
Countries in Southeast Asia worried about the near collision, while both China and the United States want to keep up relations with those countries to counter the influence of the other power.
"I think there is every reason, every incentive for both [the] U.S. and China to at least create the appearance that they are both keen to stabilize the South China Sea," Koh said.
More ships, infrastructure
China cites historical maps to call about 90 percent of the sea its own, despite competing sovereignty claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. It has angered the others, all militarily weaker, over the past decade by building infrastructure on disputed islets for bombers, missiles and radar systems.
The United States has no claim to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea but wants it open internationally for freedom of navigation. The U.S. Navy routinely sends vessels into the sea. It does annual joint naval drills with the Philippines, and in 2016 the U.S. government lifted a ban on selling certain weapons to Vietnam. It also uninvited China to the multi-country RIMPAC wartime exercises in June and July.
At the meetings Friday, Mattis "raised the importance of all maritime forces conducting their operations in a safe and professional manner in accordance with international standards and norms," the statement said. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi also attended.
Trump, Xi to meet
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in Argentina during a summit of the G-20 major economies, and some of the talks last week were "centering" on that summit, a U.S. State Department statement said. Heads of state generally try to avoid upsetting each other before summits.
Xi and Trump are more likely to touch on their 10-month-old trade dispute than the maritime dispute, some believe. The U.S. government has approved import tariffs this year covering $250 billion in Chinese goods.
"I don't think Trump will say much about the South China Sea when he meets Xi, because that meeting is ostensibly about trade," said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.
But the two leaders have the options of exchanging views and making upbeat pledges about the maritime dispute, Koh said.