China snub to US as it declines defence chief meeting

The US has been working to shore up alliances and partnerships in Asia as part of efforts to counter Beijing

Chinese Defence Minister Gen Li Shangfu is sworn in during a session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing on March 12, 2023. AP
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Beijing has declined a US invitation for a meeting in Singapore between Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu, the Pentagon said on Monday.

“Overnight, the PRC informed the US that they have declined our early May invitation for Secretary Austin to meet with PRC Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu in Singapore this week,” Pentagon spokesman Brig Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement, referring to the People's Republic of China.

“The PRC's concerning unwillingness to engage in meaningful military-to-military discussions will not diminish (the Pentagon's) commitment to seeking open lines of communication with the People's Liberation Army,” Brig Gen Ryder said.

A senior US defence official described the declined invitation as “just the latest in a litany of excuses,” saying that since 2021, China has “declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defence for key leader engagements, multiple requests for standing dialogues, and nearly 10 working-level engagements.”

Mr Li was sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, but the Pentagon says that does not prevent Mr Austin from conducting official business with him.

Mr Austin is due to travel to Singapore later this week to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, a defence summit where he met Mr Li's predecessor Wei Fenghe last June.

Mr Austin and Mr Wei met again in Cambodia later in 2022, but tensions between Washington and Beijing soared this year over issues including Taiwan and an alleged Chinese spy balloon that was shot down by a US warplane after traversing the country.

Mr Austin and other US officials have been working to shore up alliances and partnerships in Asia as part of efforts to counter increasingly assertive moves by Beijing, but there have also been tentative signs that the two sides were working to lower the temperature.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna earlier this month, and President Joe Biden recently said ties between Washington and Beijing should thaw “very shortly,” citing the spy balloon incident as a factor that had boosted tensions.

Updated: May 30, 2023, 1:37 AM