U.S. Stood Up by China at Military Safety Meeting

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U.S. Stood Up by China at Military Safety Meeting

The USS Ronald Reagan on operation in the South China Sea in July.

Photo: handout/Shutterstock

HONG KONG—The U.S. military accused China’s People’s Liberation Army of skipping a scheduled bilateral discussion on aviation and maritime safety this week, a rare snub that comes at a sensitive moment in the soured relationship between Washington and Beijing.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the PLA “declined to participate” in a teleconference meeting scheduled to run from Monday to Wednesday under a regular dialogue process that the two militaries established in a 1998 pact.

The Chinese absence is “another example that China does not honor its agreements, and this should serve as a reminder to all nations as they pursue agreements with China going forward,” Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in the statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin acknowledged that the meeting didn’t take place and said the “responsibility lies entirely with the U.S. side.” Speaking at a routine briefing Thursday, he said the U.S. military’s allegations were “completely untenable and also irresponsible.”

Mr. Wang didn’t elaborate and said queries on specific circumstances should be directed to China’s Defense Ministry, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. and Chinese military officials have routinely met to discuss operational-safety issues in accordance with the 1998 agreement, typically twice a year, according to disclosures from both governments. “This is the first time we can remember the PLA did not show up” for such a meeting, a U.S. defense official said.

The snub marked the latest point of contention in a fast-fraying U.S.-China relationship, which has become the most strained it has been in decades as the Trump administration jousted with Beijing over trade, technology and other issues. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to extend the U.S. pressure, with some changes in approach.

President Trump’s efforts to pressure China have included heightened military activities across the South China Sea, where Beijing asserts territorial and maritime claims that overlap with those of some Southeast Asian countries.

The bilateral safety dialogue is intended to reduce the risk of unsafe military encounters at sea or in the air that could spiral into a broader conflict. U.S. aircraft and warships sent to challenge China’s maritime claims have often been intercepted by Chinese counterparts, and Washington has deemed some of these encounters unsafe due to allegedly unprofessional behavior by Chinese forces. Beijing has denied such claims and insisted that its military acted safely and professionally during these encounters.

The PLA no-show “is just baffling,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The move contradicts China’s position on maintaining dialogue and communication channels—some of which the Trump administration has been closing—that can prevent bilateral tensions from spilling over into the military arena, Mr. Koh said.

“It might be construed, for right or wrong reasons, as Beijing’s attempt to test the incoming Biden administration,” he said.

Under the 1998 pact, often referred to as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, officials from the two militaries typically meet in person to discuss rules and procedures for improving safety and review unsafe encounters between U.S. and Chinese forces.

Both sides had agreed to hold this week’s session virtually, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The command was logged into the teleconference and ready to participate in the scheduled proceedings across all three days, it said.

The Indo-Pacific Command said the U.S. remains committed to the agreement and “will continue to seek a constructive, stable, and results-oriented relationship” with the Chinese military. “Our priorities are to prevent and manage crisis, reduce risk to forces operating in proximity to each other, and cooperate where interests align,” it said.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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