Dialogue between the United States and China is “essential” and will help avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflict, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday, after Beijing declined an invitation for a formal meeting between him and his Chinese counterpart.
Austin and Li Shangfu shook hands and briefly spoke for the first time at the opening dinner of the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in Singapore the night before, but the interaction fell short of the Pentagon’s hopes for a more substantive exchange.
The US defence chief is on a tour of Asia that previously took him to Japan and will also include a visit to India — part of a push by top American officials to shore up alliances and partnerships in the region to help counter Beijing.
“The United States believes that open lines of communication with the People’s Republic of China are essential — especially between our defense and military leaders,” Austin said in remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”
The United States had invited Li to meet on the sidelines of the summit, but Beijing declined, with a spokeswoman saying that “the US knows clearly why there are currently difficulties in military communication”.
Li was sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, but the Pentagon says that does not prevent Austin from conducting official business with him.
A senior US defence official said it was good for the two to speak, but Austin told the defence summit that “a cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement.”