Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin has described as “essential” dialogue between Washington and Beijing to avoid conflict, but China has rebuked the gesture in the face of persisting US "provocations".
"The United States believes that open lines of communication with the People's Republic of China are essential -- especially between our defense and military leaders," Austin proclaimed on Saturday in remarks at the Shangri-La Defense Summit in Singapore.
"The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict."
Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu shook hands and spoke briefly at the opening dinner of the event on the night prior to the its commencement, but the interaction did not lead to a more substantive exchange as hoped by the Pentagon.
US officials had invited Li to meet with Austin on the sidelines of the summit, but Beijing declined, with a spokesman insisting that "the US knows clearly why there are currently difficulties in military communication".
China’s senior colonel Zhao Xiaozhou said Beijing also believed the lines of communication were necessary, but "the problem is for the United States to stop provoking China's security."
On Friday, a US and a Canadian warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait, in a rare joint mission in the sensitive waterway at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington over Chinese-claimed Taiwan.
The US Navy's 7th Fleet said the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Canada's HMCS Montreal conducted a "routine" transit of the strait.
While US warships transit the strait around once a month, it is unusual for them to do so with those of other US allies.
Washington imposed sanctions on Li in 2018 for purchasing Russian weapons. Asked if the United States should lift sanctions on Li, Zhao underlined: "Of course, it is one of the pre-conditions for substantial talks."
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, declared in a Friday statement that the relationship between China and the United States is conducive to greater mutual understanding.
"However, now the US says it wants to speak to the Chinese side while seeking to suppress China through all possible means and continue imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and companies.
"Is there any sincerity in and significance of any communication like this?" he said.
Beijing declared last week that it saw no reason to keep talking with Washington as long as the US pursued an entirely disingenuous policy.
Austin accused Beijing of conducting an alarming number of dangerous interceptions of US and allied aircraft flying over international airspace, including one last week.
In the incident, the US military claimed a Chinese fighter pilot conducted an "unnecessary aggressive maneuver" near an American surveillance aircraft operating over the South China Sea.
The Chinese military insisted that the US spy plane had infiltrated a military training area.
Austin is on an Asian tour that has already taken him to Japan and will also include a visit to India - part of a push by top US officials to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the region to help counter Beijing.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have risen this year over issues including Taiwan and a Chinese spy balloon shot down by a US warplane after passing over the country.
After the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon earlier this year, phone lines went down and remained that way, US officials say.
Ely Ratner, the US assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, who spoke at the event last week, said: "We have had a lot of difficulty in terms of when we have proposed phone calls, proposed meetings and dialogues."
"We ... have had an outstretched hand on this question of military-to-military engagement and we have yet to have a consistently willing partner."