US defense chief calls Chinese counterpart declined talks "unfortunate"

AFP , Thursday 1 Jun 2023

Beijing's decision to decline a meeting between US and Chinese defence chiefs is "unfortunate", particularly given recent "provocative" Chinese behaviour, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday.

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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands prior to their meeting at the prime minister s office in Tokyo on June 1, 2023. AFP


Washington 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.

But Beijing opted against the meet, though it declined to officially confirm the snub, with a spokeswoman saying only "the US knows clearly why there are currently difficulties in military communication".

Speaking in Tokyo on a brief trip before his arrival in Singapore, Austin called Beijing's decision "unfortunate."

"You've heard me talk a number of times about the importance of countries with large, with significant capabilities, being able to talk to each other so you can you can manage crises and prevent things from spiraling out of control unnecessarily," Austin said.

He said recent "provocative intercepts of our aircraft and also our allies' aircraft" by China were "very concerning".

"We would hope that they would alter their actions, but since they haven't yet, I'm concerned about at some point having an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control," he added.

The US military said Tuesday that a Chinese fighter pilot had performed an "unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" near an American surveillance aircraft operating over the South China Sea last week.

Video footage released by the US military shows a Chinese fighter plane crossing in front of the American aircraft, which could be seen shaking from the resulting turbulence.

But China's military said on Wednesday that the US jet "broke into" a military training area.

It accused Washington of "provocation" and said the dispatch of ships and planes to "conduct close surveillance on China seriously harms China's national sovereignty and security".

Austin and other US officials have been working to shore up alliances and partnerships in Asia to counter increasingly assertive moves by Beijing, but there have also been tentative signs the two sides were 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."

And Austin said Thursday he remained open to any chance for discussions.

"I would welcome any opportunity to engage with leadership," he said.

"I think defence departments should be talking to each other on a routine basis, or should have open channels for communication."

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