Ahead of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to Asia, the Department of Defense is hoping to renew efforts to bring back the remains of American soldiers that died or went missing in action in China.

According to Randall Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Esper is set to meet his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of a meeting in Bangkok.

During WWII, the United States allied with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces in their joint struggle against the Japanese. This fighting was part of a broader campaign dubbed by the U.S. military as the China-Burma-India theatre. By 1949, however, Chiang found himself pushed out by Mao Zedong’s communist forces, which resulted in decades of diplomatic non-relations between Washington and Beijing. The relations were not resumed until the 1970s.

The repatriation of the remains is an issue with mixed results and continued inconsistency, which the DoD is seeking to improve. China is not the only country in which the U.S. has been looking. Back in March of this year, a U.S. military aircraft left Myanmar with the possible remains of a WWII U.S. soldier. Also, in July of 2018, North Korea returned the bodies of some U.S. troops dating back to the Korean War of 1950-1953.

Repatriation of fallen soldiers has often been used both as a bargaining chip as well as a goodwill gesture between various countries, particularly the United States and various Asian countries, which saw the vast majority of post-WWII American combat deaths. June 23 witnessed the 150th repatriation ceremony in Vietnam.

The renewed push by the Defense Department coincides with Esper’s upcoming trip to Manila, Bangkok, Seoul, and Hanoi. Bringing home remains is not, however, the only topic likely to be discussed between U.S. and Chinese officials. High on Washington’s agenda is the allegation that China has been violating international sanctions, particularly in regards to oil exports, to North Korea.

It remains unclear how this will be impacted by the recent statements made by President Donald Trump regarding trade policy. Signals from Chinese officials that the early stages of a potential U.S.-China trade deal were taking form were quickly rebuffed by the White House. Following a statement by the Chinese commerce ministry that tariffs may be phased out, Trump told reporters that this would not be taking place.

It is very well possible that the repatriation of remains may take place as an act of goodwill. On the other hand, it is equally possible that any discussion will remain within the confines of a military-to-military framework.

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