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China rejects U.S. request for a meeting of the defense chiefs

Beijing blamed U.S. sanctions on its defense minister for its rejection of an invitation to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu.Getty Images; AP file

HONG KONG — China has declined a request from the U.S. for a meeting between the countries’ defense chiefs, the Defense Department said late Monday as the world’s two largest economies struggle to mend ties.

The Pentagon had suggested a meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum being held in Singapore from Friday to Sunday.

Washington has been seeking to restore high-level communications with Beijing as both sides signal a willingness to ease tensions stoked by clashes over Taiwan, a Chinese spy balloon and Russia’s war in Ukraine. But China has outlined limits to that conciliation over its issues with U.S. sanctions and what it sees as a broader effort to contain its rise.

“Overnight, the PRC informed the U.S. that they have declined our early May invitation,” the Pentagon said in a statement, using an abbreviation for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.

“The Department 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.”

Responding Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated Beijing’s opposition to the U.S. sanctions Li has been under since 2018.

“If the United States says it wants to communicate while suppressing and containing China by any means and imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and enterprises, what is the sincerity and meaning of such communication?” she said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.

Li, an aerospace engineer and general in the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, was named defense minister in March. He had been sanctioned by the Trump administration over his role in the acquisition of weapons from Russia as part of China’s military modernization drive.

The Pentagon says the sanctions on Li do not prevent Austin from meeting with him.

“It’s designed to be a snub, I think that’s pretty evident,” Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based strategic adviser on Asia-Pacific geopolitics, told NBC News.

This is not the first time China has rejected the Pentagon’s overtures, according to a senior U.S. defense official, who said that since 2021, Beijing has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests for meetings at multiple levels.

“Frankly, it’s just the latest in a litany of excuses,” the official said.

President Joe Biden indicated at a summit of major industrial nations in Japan this month that the sanctions on Li might be lifted, but a State Department spokesperson later said that was not under consideration.

Though China’s armed forces are commanded by the Central Military Commission and not by Li, whose role is largely ceremonial, he serves as a key point of contact for foreign militaries.

U.S.-China relations have been strained since Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing in February after a Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down over U.S. territory by the military. That trip has yet to be rescheduled.

China has also objected to U.S. accusations that it is considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance in its war against Ukraine, as well as two stopovers in the U.S. by the president of Taiwan, a self-ruling island that Beijing claims as its territory.

Biden, who last spoke with President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Indonesia in November, said at the G7 summit that he expected a “thaw very soon” in the U.S.-China relationship. There have been encouraging signs since then, including the arrival last week of China’s new ambassador, Xie Feng, after months of delay.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, in Washington last week, the first Cabinet-level exchange between the two countries in months. That followed a meeting in Vienna between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and a meeting in Beijing between U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

But relations between the two militaries are “obviously the most fraught and sensitive within the bilateral relationship,” Neill said.

U.S. officials say the breakdown in communication raises the risk of an unintended crisis or conflict between the two countries, whose militaries are both active in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is known as a forum for defense officials to network informally, and Austin met Li’s predecessor, Wei Fenghe, at the same event last year. Though China has rebuffed the idea of a side meeting this year, Austin and Li could still cross paths.

“There’s a possibility that they will have a brush-past and a handshake and a photo opportunity,” Neill said. “I think it’ll look pretty grim if they don’t do that, in fact.”

But he said military communications between the two countries are unlikely to improve unless Xi “is willing to sit down and talk with the U.S. president about his concerns.”

“If that’s not going to happen,” Neill said, “then there won’t be a sort of cascade of similar engagements with the PLA.”

Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong and Courtney Kube from Washington.