July 2, 2018
By Tom Squitieri
BEIJING — Defense Secretary James Mattis came to China armed with his knowledge of geography, history and the determination to see — perhaps prove — that retired generals do not fade away, they make the world better.
Mattis believed the two superpowers could find common ground, trumpet that duet, and then try to proceed to soften the dissonance that has dominated U.S-China dialogue. Mattis said such a tactic worked before — when Nixon opened China, when Reagan got the Soviets to cut nuclear weapons — and he reckoned a military-to-military realpolitik could generate success again.
What he did not realize was that he had a not-so-secret weapon that would be a key to getting him into the door and into the conversation.
Mattis is a true soldier. He has fought and led others to victory. For all its strengths and paper prowess, the Chinese military is untested. It may train well yet that guarantees nothing.
With the exception of possibly two veterans remaining from when China clashed with Vietnam in early 1979, Mattis had more individuals in his press contingent who were shot at and wounded than in the Chinese army.
That experience commands attention and respect from the Chinese, even if anti-Americanism is de rigueur these days among Beijing’s leaders. That was the key to opening the door.
Mattis knows all about his nicknames — such as “Chaos” and “Warrior Monk”— and snatches of true conversation with him underscore the validity of those monikers. He weaves personal experiences with sage advice from the ancient Romans, can deliver stern messages with a smile and dazzle or with a stone-cold visage, and he seems to follow the battle plan mantra of engaging one’s brain before engaging one’s weapon.
The Chinese also know all this about him. It is that war fighting experience, that battlefield success, that they value, that makes his words ones they were open to hearing.
That permitted Mattis to press Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top leaders on China’s buildup of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea — even as Xi defiantly stated Beijing would not give up “an inch of sovereignty,” according to Chinese media.
Mattis did not blink. He pressed the issue of China’s broken promise not to militarize the islands in every meeting except that with the president. In the meeting with Xi, he played his straight flush of geography, history, experience, calmness, and steadfastness.
“This is an important time in the history of China and the United States as we work our way forward,” Mattis said as he sat with Xi before the media. “It reminds me just how important this is for both of our nations. So I’m here to keep our relationship on a great trajectory, going in the right direction, and to share ideas with your leadership, your military leadership, as we look at the way ahead.”
Xi told Mattis good relations between the two countries will benefit peace and stability and called the U.S.-China relationship one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.
Aides who sat through the China meetings said this is Mattis’ view on where to launch dialogue – reality-based, not wishful thinking.
“What was consistent was the desire for a consistent military-to-military relationship as a stabilizing factor of the overall relationship,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said.
En route to Beijing Mattis said he was going with an open mind and open ears, eager to hear how they would like to see the relationship between the two superpowers.
“I want to go in and have an open discussion,” Mattis told reporters on Sunday. “I want to go there to do a lot of listening, to identify common ground.”
“The way to address this between our two nations is to first establish a transparent strategic dialogue,” Mattis said then. “I want to understand how they see the strategic relationship developing and I don’t want to go in with (any) pre-set expectations of what they’re going to say. I want to go in without poisoning the well as if my mind is made up.”
It was Mattis’ first trip to China. He had been close before, visiting Hong Kong as a Marine when it was under British control. Yet Hong Kong no doubt left some strategic guidance for the future defense secretary.
Among the many perks in Hong Kong are tailors who can turn out a new suit within 24 hours. And no matter how many times one visits the same tailor, they always insist on taking measurements.
The tailors never assume anything about the person standing in front of them. By taking the measure of the person, they know how best to proceed.
Perhaps Mattis and the Chinese visited the same tailor.