China declines US request for a meeting between defense chiefs

May 29 (Reuters) - China has declined a request from the United States for a meeting between their defense chiefs at an annual security forum in Singapore this weekend, media reported on Monday, a new sign of strain between the powers.

"Overnight, the PRC informed the U.S. that they have declined our early May invitation for Secretary (Lloyd) Austin to meet with PRC Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu in Singapore," the Pentagon said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal, referring to China by the initials of its official name, the People's Republic of China.

Li has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018 over the purchase of combat aircraft and equipment from Russia's main arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.

The Pentagon said it believed in open communication "to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict."

Last week, White House spokesman John Kirby said there were discussions by the Defense Department to get talks going between Austin and his Chinese counterpart, who was named defense minister in March.

The prospect of a meeting was being closely watched given regional security tensions and trade disputes that have derailed plans for re-engagement by the world's two largest economies.

China's foreign ministry on Tuesday blamed the United States for its decision, claiming that Washington was "well aware" of the reasons behind the lack of military communication.

"The U.S. side should ... immediately correct its wrong practices, show sincerity, and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries," foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters at a briefing.

Last week, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao traded barbs on trade, investment and export policies in a meeting in Washington that marked the first U.S.-China cabinet-level exchange in months.

Singapore-based security analyst Ian Storey said China's decision to shun Austin did not bode well.

"At a time of rising U.S.-China tensions, General Li's refusal to meet his American counterpart will fray regional nerves even further," Storey said.

Austin and Li will be in Singapore to attend the annual Shangri-la Dialogue that opens on Friday, an informal gathering of defense officials and analysts that also plays host to a string of side meetings.

Both are expected to hold bilateral meetings with counterparts from around the region.

Li, who security scholars say is a veteran of the People's Liberation Army modernisation effort, is a member of the Central Military Commission, China's top defense body that is commanded by President Xi Jinping.

Reporting by Urvi Dugar in Bengaluru, Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Liz Lee and Laurie Chen in Beijing; Editing by Chris Reese, Deepa Babington and Nick Macfie

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