Fault lines between the US and China were on clear display Friday as senior officials challenged each other over the South China Sea, Taiwan, religious freedom and trade just weeks before President Donald Trump is set to meet with President Xi Jinping.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke to the press alongside their Chinese counterparts after the four officials held a security and diplomatic dialogue meant to prepare their leaders for a meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina later this month.
The officials were set to discuss issues ranging from the South China Sea to human rights and cooperation on issues involving countries like Afghanistan and Iran, US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad told reporters Thursday. He added that the US was looking to achieve progress on North Korea, discuss strategic security and reduce fentanyl imports to the US.
Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and Mattis warned against conflict, while comments by top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Pompeo underscored divisions between the world’s two largest economies, now engaged in a trade war.
Pompeo said the US side had been “forthright in addressing significant differences between our nations” and laid out the Trump administration’s larger goal. “The US is not pursuing a cold war or containment policy with China,” Pompeo said. “Rather, we want to make sure China acts responsibly and fairly.”
Wei warned that “confrontation or conflict between the two militaries will spell disaster for all” and said that “cooperation is the only option for us.”
Mattis added his own caution, saying that “competition does not mean hostility, nor does it lead to conflict. High-level dialogue like this helps diminish the space between us.”
But the exchange on display before reporters served to show just how much space there is between the two sides, particularly over the South China Sea and freedom of navigation.
Mattis repeated the position that “the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. The US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, one that is underpinned by a rules-based international order and regional stability, is unwavering.”
He added that the Pentagon has “sought ways to lessen tension, maintain open lines of communications between our militaries and reduce the risk of miscalculation.”
Yang pushed back hard. “The US should stop sending its vessels and aircraft close to” Chinese territory in the South China Sea, the Chinese minister said.
Beijing has steadily been building artificial islands and military installations to cement its claim to the highly contested territory. China expects the US “to respect China’s security interests in the Asia-Pacific, China’s sovereignty and development interests,” Yang said Friday.
While the US and others have pointed to China’s construction of facilities in the South China Sea that effectively create military bases, Yang suggested said that if any country is militarizing the region, it is the US.
“We believe that no country should use any excuse to engage in militarization in the region. Actually, to pursue militarization in the region will not only undermine interests of regional countries but will hurt the countries that take these actions themselves,” Yang said. “There’s no such problem of the freedom of navigation and overflight being obstructed, so to use the freedom of navigation and overflight to pursue military action is unjustifiable.”
Yang expressed China’s unhappiness about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, saying the pact “needs to be continued to be implemented and observed.”
He also singled out Trump’s decision to pursue a trade war with Beijing, saying that “a trade war, instead of leading to any solution, will only end up hurting both sides and the global economy.”
Pompeo, who has made religious freedom a priority at his State Department, said he had had a “good conversation” on the US’ concerns about China’s treatment of religious minorities amid reports that Beijing is in the midst of a large-scale effort to “re-educate” its Uighur Muslim population concentrated in Xinjiang province.
Yang deflected the issue, saying that “matters related to Xinjiang are China’s internal affairs.”
“Foreign countries have no right to interfere,” he said.
“Within the confines of law, the government has taken steps to crack down on ethnic separatist activities and violent terrorist crimes to safeguard national security and life and property of the people,” Yang said, seeming to refer to the Uighur detention camps in Xinjiang.
Pompeo said the US had also expressed concern about China’s approach to Taiwan, particularly its efforts to limit international engagement with the breakaway province.
Again Yang and Wei pushed back, speaking of Taiwan as an “integral” and “inseparable” part of China. Yang said he hoped the US would “respect” and “not interfere” with Chinese internal affairs when it comes to Taiwan
China ultimately hopes to “achieve reunification” of Taiwan with China, Wei said. If military actions erupted over Taiwan, the Chinese government would work to achieve reunification “at any cost,” just as the United States experienced during the Civil War, he said.
CNN’s Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.