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U.S. Sanctions on China Defense Chief Loom Over Chance for Talks

WASHINGTON — American sanctions against Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu have emerged as a sticking point ahead of an opportunity for the two sides to resume defense dialogue amid simmering tensions.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, scheduled to begin June 2. Li may also be present, as China usually sends its defense minister to the forum.

A meeting between the two would mark the first talks between American and Chinese defense chiefs since November 2022 and the first since Li assumed his post in March. Austin had sought a call with his Chinese counterpart after the U.S. downed a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in February, but Beijing refused.

Li remains under sanctions imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration over acquisitions of military aircraft and missile system equipment from Russia. China is urging the U.S. to lift these ahead of the Singapore event, according to a source familiar with discussions between the two countries.

“The Secretary of Defense is able to engage in official United States Government business with People’s Republic of China (PRC) Minister of National Defense, Li Shangfu, despite Li’s sanctions designation,” a Department of Defense spokesperson told Nikkei on Wednesday.

“It has been the PRC’s decision to ignore, reject, or cancel multiple U.S. requests for senior-level communication,” the spokesperson said. “We hope that the PRC will recognize the importance of opening up those lines of communication.”

Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, said he personally believes that the sanctions should be lifted. But “lifting sanctions may have to involve congressional intervention, which is staunchly hawkish on China,” he said. “So it will be difficult and politically fraught.”

International meetings in Asia have in the past served as opportunities for top U.S. and Chinese defense officials to meet even amid bilateral tensions. If Austin and Li do not do so at the Shangri-La forum, talks between them will likely be shelved entirely for the time being.

Dialogue between the American and Chinese militaries has been scant. Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in a hearing in April that he has had a “standing ask” to meet with the commanders of China’s Eastern and Southern theaters since assuming his post in the spring of 2021, with no success.

The lack of communication may heighten the risk of an accidental clash. Taiwan’s presidential election next January could add to the friction between the U.S. and China, and there is intensifying tension between Beijing and the Philippines, an American ally, over China’s efforts to increase its control over the South China Sea.

Economic dialogue may move forward before defense talks do. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai plans to meet with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao later this month at a gathering of trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Detroit, Bloomberg reports.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday. They discussed topics including Russia’s war against Ukraine and pledged to keep lines of communication open, according to a White House statement.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told Reuters last week that China has invited him to visit “in the near term” and that Biden has authorized the trip.

Source : Nikkei Asia