China declined a U.S. request for the countries’ defense chiefs to meet this week, following concerns Beijing raised over sanctions Washington imposed on its top general.
While the rejection is latest rebuff of U.S. efforts to strengthen military communications, it appears to be a setback for White House efforts to restore ties with key officials amid heightened tensions.
The U.S. had proposed in May that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meet his counterpart Li Shangfu in Singapore during the Shangri-La Dialogue, a marquee Asia-Pacific security gathering.
However, China had demanded that the U.S. lift sanctions imposed on Li in 2018 over the role he played overseeing an arms purchase from Russia.
In a sign of the testy relationship between the top economies and global powers, the U.S. Defense Department on Monday called the decision a “concerning unwillingness” to engage in military discussions.
The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Relations have been rocky since the U.S. slapped sweeping export bans on semiconductor technology, a top U.S. politician visited Taiwan, which angered Beijing, and an alleged Chinese spy balloon crossed U.S. territory, all obscuring any goodwill gained from a meeting late last year between top leaders Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
Last week, top commerce officials met face-to-face in Washington, following two-days of talks between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat in May, steps the U.S. has seen as thawing relations.
The Defense 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,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Monday.
The Biden administration had weighed the possibility of lifting the sanctions. During a Group of Seven summit in Japan on May 21, Biden said such a move was “under negotiation right now.”
Li plans to attend the Singapore event from May 31 to June 4, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Li will give a speech and meet Singaporean officials, Xinhua said, citing China’s defense ministry.
China had argued that Li wouldn’t be on equal footing with Austin if the sanctions stayed in place, Bloomberg News reported earlier.
The U.S. sanction designation “does not prevent Secretary Austin from meeting with him in the course of conducting official United States Government business,” Ryder said in the statement Monday.