Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the U.S. is firmly against China’s “destabilizing” behavior in the Indo-Pacific region and won’t stand by while one country reshapes the area, continuing a war of words between the superpowers.
There is a “disturbing pattern of aggressive” conduct, Esper said at a press conference in Sydney on Sunday, speaking after annual strategy talks with his Australian counterparts.
The U.S. won’t “stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others, and we know our allies and partners will not either,” he said. China is “weaponizing the global commons using predatory economics and debt-for-sovereignty deals, and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property,” Esper said.
Disagreements between the world’s two biggest economies have escalated into concerns over trade, human rights, the South China Sea, Taiwan and Huawei Technologies Co. So far, there are few signs of a resolution. In a defense white paper released in July, China accused the U.S. of undermining global stability and provoking competition among major countries.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the importance of cooperation with the U.S. following talks with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo last week, adding “it is neither fair nor possible to try to obstruct China’s development.”
Pompeo has been one of the Trump administration’s most prominent critics of China.
“We’re not asking nations to choose between the United States and China, because that’s not how we operate,” Pompeo said in Sydney at the same press conference. Cooperation between the nations brings mutual benefit, he added, “not zero-sum deals where one side wins and the other risks losing.”
Pompeo and Esper participated in the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, or AUSMIN talks, which have served as the principal forum for the allies’ joint strategic, foreign and defense policies for 34 years. Australia is vulnerable to worsening ties between the U.S., its most important strategic ally, and China, its biggest trading partner.
Pompeo, in the press briefing with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds, said the U.S. and Australia were “both concerned about China’s militarization of their man-made islands in the South China Sea and we’re both keeping an eye on investment that mires our friends in debt and corruption.”
Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of becoming more aggressive in asserting its claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea – a move the U.S. had termed “bullying behavior.” China said last month that the situation in the South China Sea was “generally stable and improving” as regional countries are properly managing risks and differences.
Code of Conduct
Talks on the second draft of a maritime code of conduct in the South China Sea between China and Southeast Asian countries is due to begin in October, a senior Thai government official said Friday.
In December, the U.S. joined a group supporting infrastructure projects in the Pacific, stepping up its commitment in the region in a bid to counter China’s rising influence. The U.S. has been increasingly critical of China-backed infrastructure projects in the Pacific Islands region, saying many aren’t properly planned or financially sustainable and are of questionable use.
Australia’s relations with China have been strained since last year when it passed laws aimed at reducing Beijing’s meddling in national affairs and barred Huawei from helping build its 5G network.
Pompeo on Sunday said Australia “independently and courageously” raised concerns about China’s ambitions “even before we caught on.” Australia’s moves irked the government in Beijing; Chinese ports have delayed imports of Australian coal, while the Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China, said the re-election of Morrison’s government will “continue current poor relations.”
A potential thaw in the icy relationship could be seen in Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s visit to Beijing this weekend for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership talks.
“Overall, you’re talking about a relationship that has seen phenomenal growth year on year for a sustained period of time,” Birmingham told Sky News on Sunday, adding that Australia’s economic relationship with China was “very sound.” Chelsea Mes & Jason Scott, Bloomberg