America’s top defense official pushed back this week on the contention that US foreign policy seeks to contain China’s influence, despite growing recognition among many in Beijing and Washington that this is the case.

“And obviously, we’re not out to contain China. We’d have taken an altogether different stance had that been considered.  It has not been considered,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said while on a flight to Vietnam. “But it’s out mutual responsibility to responsibly manage differences,” he added.

Mattis cited cooperation on the issue of North Korean denuclearization as evidence that the two countries were finding areas to work together constructively.

The defense chief reserved most of his comments on China for criticisms, echoing other voices from inside the Donald Trump administration as well as Congress.

“We remain highly concerned with continued militarization of features in the South China Sea. Plus, we look at the – what we consider to be almost predatory – in some cases certainly predatory economic behavior, where massive debt is piled on countries that fiscal analysis would say they are going to have difficulty, at best, repaying in the smaller countries,” he said.

Mattis added that the two countries must “find a way to productively manage our relationship. And the military relationship is to be a stabilizing force in the relations between the two countries.”

The bilateral military relationship was dealt a blow in late September when the People’s Liberation Army halted a military dialogue with the US after Washington slapped sanctions on PLA entities for purchasing arms from Russia.

The issue of containment has come up recently outside of the security sphere, with commentary from Chinese state media arguing that the Trump administration’s trade policy is in part an attempt to contain China’s rise.