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China says ‘no’ to Biden admin request for meeting between US, China defense chiefs

By Jimmy Adeel
|
May 30, 2023

The Pentagon has revealed that China rejected a proposal for a meeting between the U.S. Secretary of Defense and China's Minister of National Defense.

The refusal arrived in the backdrop of an annual security forum in Singapore, as reported by Reuters.

Declined Invitation and U.S. Reaction

The Pentagon has announced that the People's Republic of China (PRC) has turned down an invitation extended to US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, to attend a meeting with the PRC's Minister of National Defense, Li Shangfuan. The meeting was to take place at the annual security forum in Singapore, scheduled from June 2 to 4.

The statement from the Pentagon read, "The PRC's concerning unwillingness to engage in meaningful military-to-military discussions will not diminish the Department of Defense's commitment to seeking open lines of communication with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at multiple levels as part of responsibly managing the relationship," CNN reported.

Li Shangfu has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018 due to his role in acquiring combat aircraft and related equipment from Rosoboronexport, Russia's leading arms exporter.

Despite this, the Pentagon remained hopeful about maintaining open communication channels to deter any competition from spiraling into conflict.

This month, during a summit of major industrial nations in Japan, President Joe Biden hinted at the possibility of lifting sanctions on Li. However, NBC News reported that the State Department later clarified that such a move is not being considered.

John Kirby, White House spokesman, noted last week that the Defense Department deliberated over talks between Austin and his Chinese counterpart. These discussions come at a crucial juncture amid regional security tensions and trade disputes disrupting the plans for renewed engagement by the world's two largest economies.

China's Response to the Declined Invitation

On Tuesday, China's foreign ministry held the United States accountable for the refusal. They argued that the U.S. was "well aware" of the reasons behind the disrupted military communication.

Mao Ning, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, urged the U.S. to "immediately correct its wrong practices, show sincerity, and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries."

Last week, tensions heightened further when U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao clashed over trade, investment, and export policies during a meeting in Washington. This marked the first U.S.-China cabinet-level interaction in several months.

Regional Implications of the Rejection

Ian Storey, a Singapore-based security analyst, perceived China's decision to snub Austin negatively. He stated, "At a time of rising US-China tensions, General Li's refusal to meet his American counterpart will fray regional nerves even further."

Both Austin and Li are set to be in Singapore for the Shangri-la Dialogue, an informal gathering of defense officials and analysts that accommodates a series of side meetings. The two officials are anticipated to partake in bilateral meetings with their counterparts from the region.

Li, an integral part of the People's Liberation Army's modernization drive and a member of the Central Military Commission, China's supreme defense body commanded by President Xi Jinping, is seen as an experienced player by many defense scholars.

Cross-Strait Tensions: Postponed Trip and Military Incidents

Relations between the U.S. and China have been strained since February. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned trip to Beijing was postponed after the military downed a Chinese surveillance balloon over U.S. territory. The trip has yet to be rescheduled.

Additionally, straining the relationship, China has criticized U.S. allegations that it is contemplating providing Russia with deadly military aid in its conflict with Ukraine.

In addition, Beijing has expressed disapproval over two U.S. visits by the president of Taiwan, an island that governs itself but is claimed by China as its territory. China views any official interactions with Taiwan as a breach of the 'One China policy, which considers Taiwan a part of China.