Lloyd Austin Says 'It's Unfortunate' His Chinese Counterpart Won't Meet With Him

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday described his Chinese counterpart’s refusal to meet with him as “unfortunate,” highlighting the importance of the two countries having “open channels for communication.”

Austin had requested last month to meet Li Shangfu, China’s minister of national defense, during an upcoming defense summit in Singapore. But the Pentagon on Monday said China had dismissed the offer.

“I think that’s unfortunate,” said Austin, speaking alongside Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada in Tokyo ahead of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, which starts Friday.

Austin and Li have not spoken directly since the Chinese minister assumed his post in March, according to CBS News.

“I’m concerned about at some point having an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control, but again I would welcome any opportunity to engage with leadership,” Austin said.

“I think defense departments should be talking to each other on a routine basis or should have open channels for communication,” he added.

Lloyd’s comments come as the U.S. on Tuesday said China performed an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver during the intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft” over the South China Sea.

“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the U.S. military said in a statement.

“We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law,” the statement continued.

John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, described the action as “dangerous” and said this was the latest example of why the U.S. needs to have military-to-military channels of communication with China to discuss “incidents, like this one, that could lead to miscalculation and misunderstanding and maybe getting somebody hurt.”

The U.S. has tried to reopen talks with Beijing after recent tension between the two countries, prompted by the Chinese spy balloon program as well as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer, among other things.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech outlining the Biden administration’s approach to China, which he characterized as “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.”

“Put simply, the United States and China have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future,” Blinken said. “That’s why this is one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any that we have in the world today.”

Blinken added that diplomacy is critical in the current moment.

“It’s how we make clear our profound concerns, better understand each other’s perspective, and have no doubt about each other’s intentions,” he said. “We stand ready to increase our direct communication with Beijing across a full range of issues. And we hope that that can happen.”