China has rebuffed a request from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a meeting on the sidelines of an annual security forum in Singapore this weekend, the Pentagon said Monday.
The decision by China to formally inform the Pentagon shuts the door for now on a meeting between Austin and Li Shangfu, China’s new defense minister, which the U.S. had proposed on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum.
However, China welcomed Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk on Tuesday, telling the billionaire that in spite of strained relations with the U.S., foreign companies can feel confident investing in the Communist nation.
“We need to keep the steering wheel in the right direction of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told Musk, according to a statement.
Both sides should “avoid ‘dangerous driving,’” Qin said added.
He did not, however, provide any details about how to improve relations with the U.S.
The rejection of Austin’s meeting request and the welcome for Musk come as China’s ruling Communist party struggles with an economic slowdown.
“Foreign companies are uneasy following raids on consulting firms and given the strained Chinese relations with Washington,” The Western Journal reported.
Qin said China will “unswervingly promote high-level opening up” and create a “market-oriented, law-based and internationalized business environment,” the Foreign Ministry’s statement noted further.
“China’s development is an opportunity for the world,” he added.
Specifically, China is working to expand its electric vehicle manufacturing base, while currently accounting for about half of all EV sales globally. China was the location for the first foreign-based Tesla plant.
As for rebuffing Austin, Beijing has expressed doubt about Washington’s genuine intentions behind advocating for the meeting, highlighting the sanctions imposed by the United States on Li since 2018. During his tenure as the head of the Chinese military’s armaments departments, Li engaged in the procurement of combat aircraft and missile equipment from Russia, which drew the ire of Washington.
In a statement to the WSJ, Liu Pengyu, Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington, said Washington was “seeking to suppress China through all possible means and continue imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and companies.”
He noted further: “Is there any sincerity in and significance of any communication like this?”
Historically, such meetings have often materialized with little notice, reminiscent of last year’s encounter between Austin and his former counterpart, which was arranged mere hours before it took place, the outlet noted further.
“Overnight, the PRC informed the U.S. that they have declined our early May invitation for Secretary Austin to meet with PRC Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu in Singapore this week,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The Department believes strongly in the importance of maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication between Washington and Beijing to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”
China’s refusal to meet comes following weeks of persistent efforts by the U.S., including a letter from Austin to Li, aimed at arranging a meeting. The rejection has raised concerns among Southeast Asian allies who fear being caught in the middle of the tensions between the two superpowers, cautioned certain U.S. officials.