China rejects US request for meeting of defense chiefs

China has rejected a U.S. request for a meeting between their defense chiefs at an annual security forum in Singapore later this week, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday.

Beijing informed Washington that it has declined the invitation, made in early May, for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with China’s Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu in Singapore this week, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the rebuff.

Austin is traveling in Asia this week, with stops in Japan, India and Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, set to start Friday and include gatherings of defense officials and analysts as well as meetings on the sidelines.

The United States has been trying to facilitate a conversation between Austin and Li was named defense minister in March. But relations between the two countries have remained icy since February, when the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S., including sensitive military sites, in February.

Directly after the U.S. military shot down the balloon, Austin reached out to his former counterpart, but the call was declined.

Washington and Beijing have also been at odds over trade disputes, Taiwan’s independence and Russia’s war in Ukraine, which China has refused to condemn.

In addition, the U.S. has been sanctioning Li since 2018 over his buying of warplanes and equipment from Russian defense firm Rosoboronexport.

Ryder pointed out that Li’s sanctions do not prevent Austin from meeting with him to conduct official U.S. government business.

China’s latest rejection of a U.S. request for a meeting indicates relations are still strained between the two, despite efforts by the Biden administration to build bridges.

White House spokesman John Kirby last week said the administration was communicating directly with Beijing’s government but cautioned that it was “a complicated relationship and there’s going to be ups and downs.”

Ryder on Tuesday said the Pentagon “believes strongly in the importance of maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication between Washington and Beijing to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”

He added that China’s “concerning unwillingness to engage in meaningful military-to-military discussions will not diminish DoD’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.”

China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, claimed Tuesday the U.S. is to blame for the rejected meeting, and that Washington was “well aware” of the reasons behind the decision.

“The U.S. side should . . . immediately correct its wrong practices, show sincerity, and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters at a briefing, according to Reuters.

A senior U.S. defense official, however, told The Hill that the declined invitation to communicate is “just the latest in a litany of excuses.”

Since 2021, China “has declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defense for key leader engagements, multiple requests for standing dialogues, and nearly ten working-level engagements,” the official added.

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