Dialogue between the United States and China is "essential" to avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflict, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday, after Beijing rejected a formal meeting between him and his Chinese counterpart.
Austin and Li Shangfu shook hands and spoke briefly for the first time at the opening dinner of the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore on Friday, but the interaction fell short of the Pentagon's hopes for a more substantive exchange.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have soared this year over issues including Taiwan and an alleged Chinese spy balloon that was shot down by a U.S. warplane after traversing the country.
The U.S. defense 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 defenxe and military leaders," Austin told the summit.
"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 "the U.S. knows clearly why there are currently difficulties in military communication."
The Chinese delegation swiftly responded to Austin's speech, with Senior Colonel Tang Hefei, spokesperson for China's defense ministry, saying that the Pentagon chief "made several false accusations" in his remarks.
"We oppose that," Tang told reporters in Singapore.
Another Chinese delegation member, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, said Washington had no business telling China what to do.
"What we do in the Chinese military is based on maintaining the core interests of China's security, which is fundamental," he told reporters.
Defense minister Li, who will address the meeting on Sunday, was sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, but the Pentagon says that does not prevent Austin from conducting official business with him.
Zhao said removing the sanctions is "one of the pre-conditions for substantial talks" with Austin.
Austin said he was "deeply concerned that [China] has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries," expressing hope that would soon change.
The U.S. defense chief also took aim at Beijing for conducting "an alarming number of risky intercepts of U.S. and allied aircraft flying lawfully in international airspace," including one last week.
In that incident, the U.S. military said a Chinese fighter pilot had performed an "unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" near an American surveillance aircraft operating over the South China Sea.
Video footage released by the U.S. military showed a Chinese fighter plane crossing in front of the American aircraft, which could be seen shaking from the resulting turbulence.
But China's military said the U.S. plane "broke into" a military training area.
Another recent flashpoint in China-U.S. relations has been high-end microchips, with Beijing saying in May that U.S. semiconductor giant Micron had failed a national security review and would not be allowed to sell to operators of "critical information infrastructure."
The announcement came after Washington and its allies took measures in recent months that China claimed were designed to restrict its ability to purchase or manufacture cutting-edge chips and curb its rising global power.
In April, Beijing launched three days of military exercises around the democratic self-ruled island of Taiwan, simulating targeted strikes and a blockade.
China considers Taiwan a part of its territory to be taken one day, and the island lives under the constant fear of invasion.
The Chinese exercises came in response to a meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California, which China's consulate in Los Angeles said undermined "the political foundation of China-U.S. relations."
On the sidelines of the summit, the United States, Japan, and South Korea said they aim to share North Korean missile warning data before the end of 2023.
The announcement followed a failed North Korean attempt to launch a spy satellite on Wednesday, which crashed into the sea after a rocket failure.