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US seeks meeting with China defense minister after being spurned

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is building a more lethal force posture in the Indo-Pacific as part of efforts to make sure China doesn’t dominate the region the way it intends to. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

The Pentagon is seeking a meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart in Singapore next month, according to people familiar with the matter, as the Biden administration tries again to restart military contacts despite China’s earlier refusal.

The people with knowledge of the U.S. outreach to Defense Minister Li Shangfu asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations. The Defense Department and the Chinese embassy didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Defense Department spokesperson, said the department did not have any meetings to announce. Using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China, he added that the Pentagon “seeks to maintain open lines of communication with PRC military leaders, including the PRC minister of National Defense.”

If Beijing accepts, the meeting between Austin and Li would represent the most senior in-person meeting between the two sides since an alleged Chinese spy balloon transited the U.S. in February and sent relations to a new low. China has rebuffed multiple requests for Austin or Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to speak by phone with their Chinese counterparts since then.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the U.S. to and from Central America in recent weeks only added to strains.

The proposed Austin-Li meeting would take place on the sidelines of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum in Singapore. Austin met Li’s predecessor Wei Fenghe at the same event last year.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly stressed the need to place “guardrails” around the increasingly combative relationship, but China says those efforts aren’t genuine. A long-anticipated call between Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping has yet to take place.

Any meeting would be awkward for both sides. The U.S. slapped sanctions on Li in 2018 for allegedly aiding in the transfer of Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 missile system equipment from Russian arms seller Rosoboronexport to China.

It also puts China in a difficult position. Beijing has sought to use access to its top leaders as leverage, insisting that the U.S. must adopt friendlier policies first. But refusing to meet in Singapore would risk irking other countries in a region that are pressing both sides to ease tensions.

Asked whether the sanctions against Li could affect any meeting, Meiners said Austin was allowed to “engage in official United States Government business” with Li under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.


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