U.S. Defence Secretary criticises China for declining meeting with defence chiefs, while China blames the U.S. for creating obstacles in military exchanges

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United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin

1st June 2023 – (Washington) In a recent development, Beijing’s decision to decline a meeting between U.S. and Chinese defence chiefs at a defence summit in Singapore has received criticism from United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin expressed disappointment with China’s decision, particularly given recent “provocative” Chinese behaviour. The comments came days after Washington accused Beijing of an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” near a US surveillance aircraft.

The U.S. had invited China’s Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu to hold talks with Austin on the sidelines of a defence summit in Singapore this week. However, Beijing opted against the meet, though it declined to officially confirm the snub, with a spokeswoman saying only “the U.S. knows clearly why there are currently difficulties in military communication”.

Austin called that decision “unfortunate”. He said, “You’ve heard me talk a number of times about the importance of countries with significant capabilities being able to talk to each other so that you can manage crises and prevent things from spiralling out of control unnecessarily.”

Recent “provocative intercepts of our aircraft and also our allies’ aircraft” by China were “very concerning,” he added. “I’m concerned about at some point having an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control.”

The U.S. military said on Tuesday that a Chinese fighter pilot had performed an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” near an American surveillance aircraft operating over the South China Sea last week. Video footage released by the U.S. military shows a Chinese fighter plane crossing in front of the American aircraft, which could be seen shaking from the resulting turbulence. However, China’s military said on Wednesday that the U.S. jet “broke into” a military training area. It said the dispatch of ships and planes to “conduct close surveillance on China seriously harms China’s national sovereignty and security”.

The U.S. and China have been at odds over various issues in recent times, including trade, technology, and human rights. Tensions have reached a new high over the past year, with both sides engaging in a war of words and actions. The U.S. has accused China of unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, and cyber-espionage, while China has accused the U.S. of interfering in its internal affairs, supporting separatist movements, and seeking to contain its rise as a global power.

The U.S. has been working to shore up alliances and partnerships in Asia to counter Beijing, but there have also been tentative signs the two sides are working to patch their relationship. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna this month, and President Joe Biden has said ties between Washington and Beijing should thaw “very shortly”.

However, China’s Ministry of National Defense said on Wednesday that the United States is “fully responsible” for current difficulties in bilateral military exchanges and emphasized that the engagement between the two militaries has not been suspended. Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, a spokesman for the ministry, said, “On the one hand, theUS claims to be committed to enhancing communication, while on the other, it creates obstacles in disregard of China’s concerns, seriously undermining mutual trust between the two militaries. This is not the right attitude to communication.”

Tan’s remarks were in response to U.S. claims that China has “rejected” its proposal to hold a Sino-US defence ministers’ meeting in Singapore, on the sidelines of the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue. The US has also claimed that China has repeatedly rejected its requests for exchanges between the two militaries in recent years.

“China attaches importance to the development of the China-U.S. military relationship and communication at all levels. In fact, the contacts and exchanges between the two militaries have not been interrupted,” Tan said.

Zuo Xiying, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said the “principles” and “bottom line” mentioned by Tan could refer to US sanctions on China’s defence minister and to US actions that don’t match its words.

“The Chinese defence minister is on the US’ sanctions list and the U.S. is calling for dialogue… This is not in line with diplomatic protocol of state-to-state exchanges,” Zuo said.

“Hypocrisy strikes again,” tweeted Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre.