By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military slammed China for failing to appear for virtual, senior-level meetings slated for this week, calling this "another example that China does not honor its agreements", but Beijing said the U.S. version of events distorted the facts.
U.S.-Chinese ties have rapidly deteriorated this year over a range of issues, from Beijing's handling of the coronavirus, U.S. support for Taiwan, China's clampdown on Hong Kong and rows over Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei.
The United States has also long opposed China's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and sent warships regularly through the strategic waterway.
Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in a statement on Wednesday that China's no-show for the scheduled meetings "should serve as a reminder to all nations as they pursue agreements with China going forward".
China had been due to participate in Dec. 14-16 meetings related to the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) focused on maritime safety, the U.S. command said.
China's navy rejected the criticism, saying responsibility for the failure of the meeting to go ahead "rests solely with the United States".
China provided the U.S. side with suggestions for the meeting on Nov. 18, Naval Colonel Liu Wensheng of the People's Liberation Army Navy said in a statement.
"However, the United States insisted on pushing its unilateral agenda," arbitrarily shortening and changing the nature of the meeting and "even attempting to force China to participate in the meeting before the two sides reached an agreement on the topics", Liu said.
The U.S. military said it has met regularly with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) since 1998 to conduct the MMCA dialogue. The talks this year were scheduled to be held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"We remain committed to the MMCA and call on the PLA to hold the MMCA dialogue in a manner consistent with the MMCA Charter and purpose as an operational safety dialogue,” Davidson said.
Liu said China attaches great importance to Sino-U.S maritime military security consultations and is willing and maintain dialogue on the meeting.
The MMCA is partly designed to review any unsafe military incidents that have occurred between U.S. and PLA forces, including in the South China Sea.
(Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Tom Daly; Editing by Mark Heinrich)