US: Sanctions on China's new defense chief not a hurdle for military talks

China's Defence Chief Li Shangfu (centre) then director of the Equipment Development Department of China's Central Military Commission. [VOA]

U.S. officials said current sanctions on China's new defence chief, Li Shangfu, will not prevent him from conducting official meetings with his American counterparts, nor is the U.S. government considering issuing an exemption for or waiving Li's sanction designation.

The People's Republic of China named General Li as its minister of national defense on March 12. The U.S. has not proposed a call between Li and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

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.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA that "CAATSA sanctions do not necessarily prohibit sanctioned persons from meeting with U.S. government officials."

"Visa records are confidential under U.S. law. We therefore cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases," said the spokesperson when asked if the existing sanctions would ban Li from traveling to the U.S. to conduct official meetings.

But to Beijing, seeing the United States lift the sanctions against Li as a goodwill gesture may be deemed a critical step to resuming military talks between the defense chiefs of the two nations.

Experts said sanctions should not be the reason against having deconfliction talks.

"Most of the meetings between our defense secretary and the Chinese defense minister recently have been conducted in third countries-for example, at the Shangri-La Dialogues in Singapore," said Dennis Wilder, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, referring to Asia's premier annual defense and security forum.

"In that case, there would be no reason not to have the meeting, even though [General Li] is under sanctions, because meeting in the third country makes those sanctions quite meaningless," Wilder told VOA on Monday.

While General Li remains blocked from any U.S. property interests, financial transfers, payments or foreign exchange under U.S. jurisdiction due to current sanctions, President Joe Biden's administration continues to seek open lines of communication with PRC military leaders to ensure competition does not spill into conflict, said a Pentagon spokesperson.

Secretary Austin "is able to engage in official United States government business" with General Li despite the sanctions, the spokesperson added.

The U.S. and Chinese militaries have had working level communications both in Washington and Beijing, but no leader-level military talks since November 2022 despite U.S. requests.