By Natasha Bertrand and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
(CNN) — China has rejected a United States proposal for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum in Singapore this week, according to a Pentagon statement.
China’s opposition to the meeting comes amid strained relations between the two countries following former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to the self-governing island of Taiwan last August and the US’ decision to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon that transited over sensitive US military sites in February.
In the statement, the Pentagon said China had declined an invitation extended in early May for a meeting, but said the refusal would not deter the US from seeking better lines of communication.
“The PRC’s concerning unwillingness to engage in meaningful military-to-military discussions will not diminish the Department of Defense’s commitment to seeking open lines of communication with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at multiple levels as part of responsibly managing the relationship,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder in the statement.
China’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday said the country “attaches importance” to developing US-China military relations but blamed Washington for hampering communication.
“Responsibility for the current difficulties faced by the two militaries in their exchanges lies entirely with the US side,” spokesperson Tan Kefei said when asked about reports that China rejected the Singapore meeting and other exchanges with US military officials.
“The US claims that it wants to strengthen communication, but in reality it disregards China’s concerns and creates artificial obstacles, seriously undermining mutual trust between the two militaries,” he added.
In a separate statement, the Chinese Embassy in the US questioned the sincerity and significance of the invitation, pointing to US sanctions imposed on Chinese officials, institutions and companies, and saying the US should lift its “illegal unilateral sanctions” to create favorable conditions for dialogue.
The statement did not specifically call out US sanctions against Li, which were imposed in 2018 by the administration of former president Donald Trump over China’s purchase of Russian weapons, including a Su-35 combat aircraft and a S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
The US has imposed a range of sanctions on China in recent years for a variety of reasons including alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and restrictions on political freedoms in Hong Kong.
The Wall Street Journal first reported China’s refusal to participate in a meeting between the defense chiefs.
Austin told CNN earlier this year that he had not spoken to his Chinese counterpart in “months,” and China has continued to rebuff requests for meetings and phone calls, defense officials said.
“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 Department officials,” a defense official said.
“Frankly, it’s just the latest in a litany of excuses. Since 2021, the PRC has declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defense for key leader engagements, multiple requests for standing dialogues, and nearly ten working-level engagements,” he added.
China’s Defense Ministry also refuted this characterization in its statement Wednesday, which said “in fact there has been no interruption in contacts and exchanges between the two militaries.”
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CNN’s Mengchen Zhang in Beijing contributed reporting.