The United States has no intentions of lifting the sanctions imposed on Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, a State Department spokesperson said on May 22.
The spokesperson’s comments seem to retract those made by President Joe Biden during the G-7 leaders’ summit in Japan on May 21, when he said the idea of easing Li’s sanctions was “under negotiation right now.”
Biden also said the bilateral relationship between the United States and China would “begin to thaw very shortly.”
Speaking to reporters, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller was asked whether Washington was considering lifting sanctions against Li to facilitate negotiations with China. He responded, “No, we are not.”
Miller said that Biden has “also made clear that we are not planning to lift any sanctions on him or on China more broadly.”
Li is an aerospace expert. In 2018, the United States sanctioned Li for engaging in the purchase of Russian weapons when he headed the Equipment Development Department of the Chinese military.
China appointed Li as its defense minister in March despite the U.S. sanctions. This move has raised concerns about the complications that may arise in bilateral military talks between China and the United States.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate panel on May 11 that he tried to communicate with Li “on a number of different occasions” to introduce himself, but these attempts have been rebuffed.
China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (R) greets U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) as he sits across from Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen during the ministerial roundtable luncheon at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022. (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
Austin emphasized the need for direct communication between defense ministers, such as having each other’s phone numbers on speed dial, as he noted that conflict between the two powers is “neither imminent nor inevitable.”
“I think it is critical when you have two countries with these type of capabilities” operating in congested, contested waters, Austin said in his written testimony.
“There are things we will have to address from time to time,” he continued, “and it is good to be able to pick up the phone and talk with senior people, so I will continue to work on this. I think it is really important.”
Li’s Appointment Made ‘on Purpose’
According to U.S.-based commentator Chen Pokong, although Li’s role as defense minister is largely symbolic with limited authority, Chinese leader Xi Jinping may have some special considerations in mind when making this decision.
“If the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] starts a war with another country, it would be difficult for Li to defect and flee. Given that he is already under U.S. sanctions, Li would face the possibility of further sanctions or arrest if he were to defect to other countries,” Chen said in his program on YouTube.
Chen said that because the U.S. and Chinese militaries need to maintain contact, especially defense ministers, the U.S. side would have to contact Li, but in doing so, the U.S. sanctions would be voided. This indicates that the CCP has seemingly challenged the United States.
On the other hand, if the United States does not contact Li, it would be equivalent to the U.S. military not maintaining contact with the top Chinese military authority, Chen added.
“In that case, if an unexpected military conflict occurs between the two countries, or to the point that a world war is eventually started because of the bilateral conflict, it is the United States that should bear the moral responsibility because it is the United States that fails to communicate with China in a timely manner,” he said.
John Haughey, Jessica Mao, and Olivia Li contributed to this report.