U.S maintains no lifting sanctions on China's Defense chief

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, April 16, 2023. [Reuters]

The United States is not considering lifting current sanctions on China's defense chief, Li Shangfu, the State Department said Monday.

U.S. officials had said sanctions on Li do not prevent him from conducting official meetings with his American counterparts, nor should sanctions be hurdles for military talks between Washington and Beijing.

Over the weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters that he would not consider easing sanctions on Chinese officials to improve relations. He later suggested that lifting sanctions on the defense chief is "under negotiation right now."

The State Department clarified the U.S. position Monday.

"No, we are not," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told VOA on Monday during his first on-camera briefing. Miller was asked if the U.S. is considering or entertaining the idea of whether to ease sanctions on the top Chinese military official for negotiation purposes.

The People's Republic of China named General Li Shangfu as its minister of national defense in mid-March. In 2018, the U.S. sanctioned Li under the so-called Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) when he headed the Equipment Development Department of the Chinese military.

The sanctions were related to China's purchase of ten SU-35 combat aircrafts in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department.

U.S. officials have been eager to resume talks with their Chinese counterparts. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Li are both expected to attend next month's Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level Asia security summit in Singapore.

The Chinese military has not accepted the U.S. proposal for a meeting between their defense chiefs on the margins of this annual gathering.

In Beijing, Chinese officials questioned Washington's "sincerity" in its outreach for communications.

"China always firmly opposes illegal unilateral sanctions and has made clear its stern position to the U.S. side. The U.S. side should immediately lift sanctions and take concrete actions to remove obstacles, create favorable atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication," said Mao Ning, the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Monday.

Both U.S. and Chinese officials have said there is a need to stabilize fraught relations between the world's two largest economies. Ties that have been increasingly strained in recent months over security, trade and technology issues, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Chinese officials have signaled a willingness to stabilize relations with the U.S., but at the same time they demand that the U.S. stop harming Chinese interests by strengthening ties with Taiwan and imposing technology restrictions on China.

Experts told VOA the ball is in China's court.

"It's unclear whether Beijing will proceed to take steps toward stabilizing ties unless the U.S. rolls back some of the measures it has taken that China objects to," said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Diplomatic visits to Beijing

Biden also said a "thaw" in the bilateral relationship would begin "very shortly."

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry's visit to Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua would come after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. cabinet members' planned visits to Beijing, which was agreed during a recent phone call between Kerry and Xie, a diplomatic source who wishes not to be named told VOA.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had also indicated their plans to visit China.