Taiwan is only one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a bitter trade war, U.S. sanctions and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.
Mattis told Wei on Thursday that the world’s two largest economies needed to deepen high-level military ties so as to navigate tension and rein in the risk of inadvertent conflict.
Some current and former U.S. officials say U.S. warship passages in the Taiwan Strait are still too infrequent, and note that a U.S. aircraft carrier hasn’t transited the Taiwan Strait since 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush.
When the last two U.S. warships, both destroyers, sailed through the Taiwan Strait in July, it was the first such operation in about a year.
Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, responded to the July passage with a warning to the United States to avoid jeopardizing “peace and stability” in the strategic waterway.
It has also viewed U.S. overtures towards Taiwan with alarm, including its unveiling a new de facto embassy in Taiwan and passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages U.S. officials to visit the island.
Military experts say the balance of power between Taiwan and China has shifted decisively in China’s favor in recent years, and China could easily overwhelm the island unless U.S. forces came quickly to Taiwan’s aid.
China has also alarmed Taiwan by ramping up military exercises this year, including flying bombers and other military aircraft around the island and sending its aircraft carrier through the narrow Taiwan Strait separating it from Taiwan.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said last week the island will increase its defense budget every year to ensure it can defend its sovereignty, including resuming domestic development of advanced training aircraft and submarines.
“At this time, China’s intimidation and diplomatic pressure not only hurts relations between both sides, but seriously challenges the peaceful stability in the Taiwan Strait,” she said in a National Day speech in Taipei on Oct. 10.
Her remarks came ahead of island-wide local elections in late November that are seen as a bellwether for her ruling party’s performance in presidential elections due in 2020.