China and the US on Tuesday continued to deepen their ongoing multi-front diplomatic tussle with Beijing lashing out at Washington for rejecting Chinese claims over the South China Sea (SCS) as “illegal” and also sanctioning American defence giant Lockheed Martin for selling missiles to the self-ruled democracy, Taiwan.
On Monday, reversing a policy of not taking a direct side in the SCS maritime disputes involving China and several other smaller littoral states, the Donald Trump administration rejected Beijing’s expansive claims in the resource-rich seas.
“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the SCS are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement Monday.
China is involved in disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan in the SCS maritime region.
The change in the US policy comes at a time when two nuclear-powered US navy super aircraft-carriers, USS Nimitz and Ronald Reagan are deployed in the region.
The Chinese foreign ministry reacted sharply to Pompeo’s statement, saying the US statement “neglected the history and facts” Beijing’s claims on the SCS and the disputed islands and shoals.
“The US, out of its selfish agenda, is doing all it can to stir up trouble in the SCS and drive a wedge between regional countries and China, aiming to disrupt China’s and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries’ efforts to maintain peace and stability,” foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian said at the regular ministry briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.
“China does not seek to build a maritime empire in the SCS. We have been treating our neighbouring countries as equals and we have been keeping maximum restraint in safeguarding sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea,” he said.
China and the ASEAN bloc were accelerating discussions on a Code of Conduct to jointly safeguard peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the disputed waters, Zhao said, adding, “We have made progress in our consultations,” he said.
At the same press conference, Zhao announced that China will put sanctions on Lockheed Martin for its involvement in the latest US arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing claims as a breakaway region.
One of the leading weapon-makers in the world, the US company is the primary contractor for a $620 million upgrade package for Taiwan’s Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which the US government approved last week.
When asked to comment on the arms sale, Zhao said the US should stop selling weapons to Taiwan to “avoid further harming Sino-US ties and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
“In order to safeguard the country’s interests, China has decided to take necessary steps, and put sanctions on the main contractor for this sale, Lockheed Martin,” Zhao said. He did not elaborate.
The impact of the sanctions would be essentially symbolic as Washington has long had an arms embargo on Beijing. Agency reports from Taiwan said the Taiwanese government has welcomed the missile upgrade.
It is bolstering its defences for what it sees as increasingly threatening moves by Beijing, such as its regular air force and naval exercises near Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Defence Minister Yen Teh-fa, visiting troops during the annual Han Kuang military exercise, was quoted by Reuters as saying that they needed to be strong in the face of “all sorts of threats and provocations” from China.