Mattis starts three-day China visit

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has become the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has become the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, starting a three-day trip with a goal of improving security dialogue with Beijing despite increasingly fraught Sino-US relations.

Mattis, a former Marine general, has been highly critical of China's muscular military moves in the South China Sea. The US military even withdrew an invitation to China to join a multinational naval exercise which will start during Mattis' visit, upsetting Beijing.

The trip comes against the backdrop of spiralling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade. Beijing is also suspicious of US intentions toward self-governing and democratic Taiwan, which is armed by the United States, though China views the island as a sacred part of its territory.

Mattis, who was greeted with a floral bouquet as he exited his plane in Beijing, was cautious to avoid stoking tensions when speaking to reporters ahead of his trip. Mattis said he sought "open dialogue" at a strategic level when he met with military officials in Beijing.

"I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind's already made up," said Mattis, who was due to meet US embassy officials on Tuesday.

"I'm going there to have a conversation."

Such an approach would appear to be welcome in China, where widely-read state-run tabloid The Global Times said: "Both sides should learn to be good listeners."

"Mattis' visit suggests that the Trump administration is still willing to hold military dialogue with China," it said in an editorial.

"Such bilateral talks will alleviate tensions between the two countries and is better than blindly guessing the other's 'strategic ambitions."

Taiwan is a core concern of China's when it comes to relations with Washington.

Ahead of Mattis' arrival, Chinese state media said a formation of Chinese warships has been holding daily combat drills for more than a week in waters near Taiwan, and there have been frequent Chinese air force exercises near the island.

Beijing hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week, and getting Beijing's view of North Korea is expected to be high on Mattis' agenda.