Biden’s Defense Secretary Snubs Invitation To Beijing Forum

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin turned down an invitation to attend a defense forum in Beijing, but will send another U.S. official in his place, a possible indicator of restored military communication, Reuters reported.

China cut off military-to-military communication channels with the U.S. more than a year ago, but Washington has hoped to resuscitate military ties as a way to mitigate risk with its greatest geopolitical rival, according to Reuters. In a sign of improving relations on that front, Beijing had invited Austin to attend the annual Xiangshan forum from Oct. 29 to 31, Reuters reported, citing three sources familiar, but Austin declined.

Xiangshan serves as Beijing’s version of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of defense ministers where in late May China’s now-disappeared defense minister Li Shangfu shunned an offer to engage with Austin, according to Reuters. (RELATED: US Rebuilding Massive Cold War Spy Program To Track Chinese Submarines)

The Department of Defense (DOD) “welcomes the opportunity to engage” with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the Xiangshan forum, the Pentagon said in a statement to Reuters.

The Pentagon declined to say who from the department would participate at the forum.

“The Department responded to the PRC’s August invitation for Department officials to participate in the Beijing Xiangshan Forum with the Department’s intent to participate at a level consistent with past precedent,” the Pentagon said.

China stopped communicating with U.S. military counterparts in August 2022 after former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. The move was apparently in protest of strengthening ties between the U.S. and Taiwan amid fears the U.S. will support Taiwan’s full independence from the mainland.

China also blames U.S. sanctions for obstructing military-to-military dialogue, Reuters reported.

Lately, signs have emerged suggesting a thaw in relations. In August. Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, met with unnamed Chinese military officials at a conference in Fiji, the Pentagon confirmed, according to Reuters.

White House officials called the engagements “limited” early signs that military-to-military communication may return, according to Reuters.

Heads of other U.S. agencies, including the State and Treasury departments, have also made recent trips to Beijing to engage with counterparts.

“Those are all and well,” Ely Ratner, the Pentagon’s civilian official in charge of Indo-Pacific affairs, told Defense News in reference to the meetings, adding that he has also spoken to the Chinese ambassador in Washington. “I don’t think those are a substitute for leader-level engagement.”

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