Beijing over the past several days has rebuffed Pentagon efforts to arrange a phone call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, U.S. officials said, marking the latest sign that the already icy relationship between the two nations may be growing even colder after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean last weekend.
Pentagon officials said that the U.S. immediately reached out to Chinese leaders after the surveillance balloon was shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina. So far, Mr. Austin’s counterpart has refused to set up such a phone call, marking a temporary lapse in top-level communication between the two militaries.
“We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the [People’s Republic of China] in order to responsibly manage the relationship,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this. Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue.”
China says the balloon was on a civilian mission to collect weather data, but the U.S. contended its trip across sensitive sites from the Canadian border to the Atlantic coast was a spy mission.
Mr. Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley regularly talk to their Chinese counterparts. For example, Mr. Austin and Mr. Wei met in person in Cambodia in November. A planned trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing for high-level talks last weekend was called off at the last minute after the balloon was spotted high over the western U.S.