October 1, 2018 / 6:50 PM / 3 months ago

Pentagon chief not expecting ties with China to worsen even as tensions rise

PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday he did not see relations between the United States and China worsening, a day after his trip to China was cancelled and tensions have started affecting military ties.

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis attends the swearing in ceremony for new Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The United States and China are embroiled in a trade war, sparked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s accusations that China has long sought to steal U.S. intellectual property, limit access to its own market and unfairly subsidise state-owned companies.

Reuters reported on Sunday that China cancelled a security meeting with Mattis that had been planned for October. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mattis was no longer going to China.

“There’s tension points in the relationship, but based on discussions coming out of New York last week and other things that we have coming up, we do not see it getting worse,” Mattis told a small group of reporters travelling with him to Paris.

“We’re just going to have to learn how to manage this relationship ... We’ll sort this out,” Mattis added.

Mattis said he would talk to his Chinese counterpart directly “when the time is right.”

Friction between the world’s two biggest economies is moving beyond trade, with Trump accusing Beijing of seeking to interfere in congressional elections.

On Sunday, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea. Just days before, the U.S. military flew B-52 bombers in vicinity of the South China Sea.

While such operations are common, they have led to angry reactions from China in the past. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passed each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China recently denied a request for a U.S. warship to visit Hong Kong and postponed other joint military talks in protest against a U.S. decision to impose sanctions on a Chinese military agency and its director.

China has been particularly angered by recent overtures by the United States towards Taiwan.

The United States last week approved the sale of spare parts for F-16 fighter planes and other military aircraft worth up to $330 million to Taiwan, which China considers a wayward province.

Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help it defend itself and is the island’s main source of arms. China regularly says Taiwan is the most sensitive issue in its ties with the United States.

“We’ve just got to sort out, as I’ve said before, when we step on each others toes, how we’re going to deal with it,” Mattis added.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Toby Chopra

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