Beijing has declined the Pentagon’s request for a meeting between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s defence minister Li Shangfu at a security forum in Singapore in June, the latest sign of the difficulties the countries are having trying to stabilise their turbulent relationship.
The overture had been made for a meeting to take place at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asia security event hosted annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The People’s Republic of China informed the US that they have declined our early May invitation,” the Pentagon said.
The Financial Times reported this month that China had told the US there was little chance of a meeting as long as Washington maintained sanctions on Li, which had been imposed by the Trump administration in 2018 in connection with Chinese purchases of Russian fighter jets and missiles.
The Pentagon had previously informed China that the sanctions did not prohibit a meeting in Singapore, but Beijing signalled that it would be inappropriate to meet as long as they remained in place.
“This is far from the first time that the PRC has rejected invitations to communicate from the secretary, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, or other [defence] department officials,” said a senior US defence official. “Frankly, it’s just the latest in a litany of excuses.”
The official added that, since 2021, China had declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen request for senior-level meetings in addition to multiple requests for working-level meetings.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“It’s worrisome that the Chinese fail to see the inherent risks in the prolonged suspension of US-China military-military dialogue,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.
The Shangri-La Dialogue has frequently served as one of the few forums for US defence secretaries to meet their Chinese counterparts. Austin last year met Wei Fenghe, then defence minister. China’s defence ministry on Monday confirmed that Li would attend the event.
China’s refusal comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden said at the G7 in Japan that he expected an imminent “thaw” in relations, which are at their lowest point in decades. Biden said he was considering lifting sanctions on Li, but the state department later said that was not the case.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan recently met Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, in Vienna, in a rare positive sign. Last week, Chinese commerce minister Wang Wentao met US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo in Washington, in what was the first senior-level Chinese visit to the US capital since 2020. He also met US trade representative Katherine Tai at an Apec trade meeting in Detroit.
But China has not agreed to reschedule a visit to Beijing from US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who cancelled a previous trip in February over the alleged Chinese spy balloon incident.
“The Chinese continue to cherry pick who they want to engage with,” said Glaser, adding that they were more inclined towards economic officials such as Raimondo or Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary. “If the Chinese are serious about stabilising bilateral ties, they need to resume the military-military dialogues.”