The Trump administration has issued some of its strongest words yet on China’s moves in the disputed South China Sea, accusing Beijing of “provocative militarization” of the strategic waterway, according to a top State Department official.

The condemnation of China’s push to fortify its outposts and claims in the contested waters comes amid the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis, which some analysts say has captured the lion’s share of the White House’s attention. They say this has left Beijing with a freer hand to pursue its goals in the South China Sea.

But Brian Hook, a senior policy adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Tuesday that the issue had been raised at all diplomatic and security dialogues between the two powers.

“China’s provocative militarization of the South China Sea is one area where China is contesting international law,” Hook said during a teleconference with reporters. “They’re pushing around smaller states in ways that put strains on the global system.”

Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea, and has built up a series of man-made outposts in what the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank has said is a bid to create “fully functioning air and naval bases.”

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.

Washington has long accused Beijing of militarizing the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to do so.

“We very strongly believe that China’s rise cannot come at the expense of the values and rules-based order,” Hook said.

“When China’s behavior is out of step with these values and these rules, we will stand up and defend the rule of law,” he added.

This, he said, meant the United States would continue to “back that up through freedom of navigation operations, and … let them know that we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

The U.S. has conducted freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in an attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. Its last FONOP was conducted in October, in the Paracel chain of the South China Sea, and was not as provocative as previous ones carried out by the Trump administration, including operations near China’s man-made bases in the Spratly archipelago.

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