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China Snubs US Military Outreach Ahead of Expected Blinken Visit

China has turned down a U.S. offer to hold military de-confliction talks after an unsafe air encounter involving Chinese and U.S. aircraft over the South China Sea last month.

According to U.S. diplomatic sources who spoke on background when discussing the sensitive issue, the proposed call on Friday between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe was canceled after Beijing declined to participate.

After the Pentagon was asked about Austin’s contacts with his Chinese counterpart, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Meiners told VOA, “The last time Secretary Austin spoke to his People’s Republic of China (PRC) counterpart was in November.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China in a few weeks. Without discussing the specifics of the trip, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told VOA on Thursday that Blinken’s talks with senior Chinese officials would include “areas that are predicated by competition, areas where relations between our two countries have the potential to be even adversarial and ways we can ensure responsible management of those areas, but also areas in which we can seek and even deepen collaboration.”

The top U.S. diplomat is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s top diplomat and Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Wang Yi, as well as newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Beijing’s envoy to Washington.

South China Sea ‘unsafe’ incident

The U.S. military said that on December 21, a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter pilot performed an unsafe maneuver during an intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft over the South China Sea and forced it to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision in international airspace.

China later rebutted the U.S. military’s account. A Chinese spokesperson said the United States violated international law, while accusing the U.S. of misleading public opinion.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory, a claim that the U.S. said is “expansive and unlawful.” Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also contest parts of the South China Sea.

US-China military talks

U.S. officials have encouraged China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to utilize the communication channels under the so-called Military Maritime Consultative Agreement mechanism to improve operational safety in the air and sea.

“We are disappointed that the PLA canceled MMCA in 2022 but encourage our PLA counterparts to join us for an MMCA meeting in 2023,” said Pentagon spokesperson Meiners.

Austin last spoke with Wei on the margins of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Siem Reap, Cambodia in late November. ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Wei is retiring in March. Li Shangfu, a new member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC,) is widely seen as the PRC’s next minister of national defense. Li was former head of the CMC’s Equipment Development Department, a position that gave him direct influence over the Chinese military’s modernization.

In September 2018, Li was sanctioned by the United States for a military purchase from Russia.

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