In an unusually strong statement by the Pentagon, the U.S. has accused Beijing of employing “bullying tactics” in the disputed South China Sea, citing what it said was “coercive interference” in oil and gas activities in waters claimed by Vietnam.
“China will not win the trust of its neighbors nor the respect of the international community by maintaining its bullying tactics,” the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement released Monday.
It said Beijing’s actions “to coerce ASEAN claimants, station offensive military systems, and enforce an unlawful maritime claim raise serious doubts over China’s credibility,” adding that the U.S. would continue to support its allies and partners “to ensure freedom of navigation and economic opportunity throughout the entire Indo-Pacific.”
ASEAN is the acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.
Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
A Chinese survey vessel last week extended its activities to an area closer to Vietnam’s coastline, according to ship-tracking data, after the U.S. and Australia expressed concern about Beijing’s actions in the strategic waterway.
“Recently, China resumed its coercive interference in Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in the South China Sea,” a Pentagon statement said.
The Pentagon said Beijing’s moves had violated Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s pledge in a speech in Singapore earlier this year that China would “stick to the path of peaceful development.”
“The Department of Defense is greatly concerned by China’s continued efforts to violate the rules-based international order throughout the Indo-Pacific,” the statement added.
Last week, the U.S. State Department said Chinese actions were “an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea.”
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the waterway, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Paracel chain and further south in the Spratlys — some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry.
The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The U.S. military regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations in the area.
Beijing says it has deployed the advanced weaponry to the islets for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.
In a defense white paper released for the first time in years last month, China highlighted a new emphasis on “combat readiness and military training in real combat conditions” and China’s new war-fighting capabilities in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.
Beijing, the white paper said, “has organized naval parades in the South China Sea” and “conducted a series of live force-on-force exercises” while its air force “has conducted combat patrols in the South China Sea and security patrols in the East China Sea, and operated in the West Pacific.”