Mattis, apparently displeased with Beijing’s military buildup in the disputed South China Sea, disinvited the Chinese military from a multinational naval exercise in May. And in September, a senior Chinese naval commander canceled a planned visit to meet with his American counterpart while a U.S Navy ship was denied a port visit in Hong Kong. The same month also saw Beijing postpone joint talks after the White House sanctioned a Chinese military agency and its director for buying Russian weapons.

Military dialogue can help “a bit” but “neither side is going to make a major move right now because of the basic balance of forces,” said Michael J.Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s school of foreign service.

Despite defense being one of the more stable and predictable parts of the bilateral relationship, “the downward trend is likely to continue,” added Green, a former senior Asia director at the U.S. National Security Council.

Amid that impasse, Beijing may intensify its responses to the United States’ so-called freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

On October 1, the U.S. Pacific Fleet announced that a Chinese warship almost struck a U.S. destroyer that was near the disputed Spratly Islands. Beijing takes issue with U.S. naval patrols in the area, claiming America’s presence there violates China’s sovereignty. Navigation operations, however, are considered essential to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

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