Talks this week between the defence minsters of China and the United States might ease pressure but are unlikely to end close encounters between the two countries’ displays of military force in the contested South China Sea, analysts said.
Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe is due to meet US Defence Secretary James Mattis in Washington on Friday, less than a month after the two men met in Singapore in a bid to ease tensions.
Those tensions were reflected on the weekend when CNN reported that the US Navy had had 18 “unsafe or unprofessional” encounters with Chinese military forces in the Pacific since 2016, with the greatest number of the incidents occurring last year, the first year of the Trump administration.
Watch: The last time Mattis and Wei met over the South China Sea
The encounters included what the US considered to be “unsafe” intercepts of naval surveillance planes by Chinese fighter jets.
In the most recent of the 18 incidents, on September 30 a Chinese destroyer warned the USS Decatur that the American vessel would “suffer consequences” if it did not change course, before sailing within 41 metres (45 yards) of the US warship.
Analysts said this week’s high-level meeting would do little to address underlying tensions that caused close calls between US and China.
Zhang Jie, international relations researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the meetings in Singapore and Washington were good signs but the results would be limited.
“Those at the high level hope that the situation will stabilise, but if the amount of activity on the water does not change, then the degree of danger will increase. We can’t rely only on high-level meetings alone to resolve these problems – I’m not optimistic about that,” Zhang said.
She said tensions in the South China Sea were linked to the broader political and trade problems between the US and China.
Watch: The moment US and Chinese ships nearly collided
“Each side is going to uphold their own interest, so the hopes for a resolution are not high. General relations are not very friendly at the moment, and this has an effect,” Zhang said.
Collin Koh, a research fellow in maritime security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the talks were part of a recurring cycle of conflict followed by talks, and acted as a “pressure valve”. But stepping down was politically costly for each side.
Koh said that although the Decatur incident could be seen as exceptional stand-off, regular incidents were expected to continue due in part to the White House’s commitment to the South China Sea.
“After [US President Donald] Trump first came to office, there was already speculation as to whether Trump would trade the South China Sea for a North Korean settlement, with China’s help, and that led to speculation over whether he would be a transactional leader and use the South China Sea as a sacrificial lamb,” Koh said. “So far we have not seen that.”