China on Monday officially shut down the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) request for a meeting between each country’s defense ministers, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin intended to speak in-person with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Dialogue from May 31 to June 4, as he had done in 2022, when such meetings usually materialize without significant planning ahead.
However, Beijing issued a last-minute rebuff to the Pentagon in an unusually straightforward rejection as relations between the two defense ministries further sour, according to the WSJ.
“Overnight, the PRC informed the U.S. that they have declined our early May invitation for Secretary Austin to meet with PRC Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu in Singapore this week,” the Pentagon in a statement to the WSJ, using the abbreviation for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
The Pentagon sought for weeks to secure a meeting between Austin and China’s new defense minsiter, Li Shangfu, even taking a somewhat unusual step of sending a letter directly to Li, according to the WSJ.
U.S. officials maintained a meeting between lower-ranking defense officials could still transpire, the WSJ reported. Lack of formal dialogue between two major competitors in the Pacific could trigger concerns among South Asian countries who feel caught in the middle, they added.
Li Shangfu plans to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue and meet with “heads of delegations of relevant countries,” Tan Kefei, a spokesperson for China’s defense ministry, said Monday.
Communication with China’s Ministry of National Defense dried up after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew across the continental U.S., collecting data on sensitive military sites. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister at the time, rejected the Pentagon’s request for a secure call.
Since then, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met with their counterparts, and U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns held a stern face-to-face conversation Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, but defense ministers have so far stonewalled U.S. communication attempts, according to U.S. defense officials and the WSJ.
“We’ve had a lot of difficulty, in terms of when we have proposed phone calls, proposed meetings, dialogues, whether that’s the secretary” or other high-ranking officials, Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security, said at a Washington think tank event on Thursday.
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