US presses China to halt militarisation in South China Sea, says not pursuing Cold War

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Mike Pompeo (left) and James Mattis (second right) conclude a news conference with Yang Jiechi (right) and Wei Fenghe. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - The United States is not pursuing a Cold War or containment policy with China, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday (Nov 9) in remarks that sought to steer the US-China relationship away from the frictions that have plagued it in recent months.

"Rather, we want to ensure that China acts responsibly and fairly, in support of security and prosperity in each of our two countries," said Mr Pompeo at a press conference with Secretary of Defence James Mattis after high-level security talks with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

China similarly downplayed competition between the two world powers, with Mr Yang saying: "Everything that we do is to deliver better lives for the Chinese people, to realise the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. it is not intended to challenge or displace anyone."

Their remarks come amid a growing mood in Washington that China's unfair trade practices and coercion against its neighbours had gone too far and had to be stopped, and suspicions in Beijing that America wanted to curtail its rise, as trade tensions played into the political hostility.

The diplomatic and security dialogue, which came a week after President Donald Trump and Mr Xi spoke by telephone (Nov 1) about resolving their trade disputes, also paved the way for their upcoming meeting at the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of the month.

The dialogue had been postponed from October amid rising tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea. At the press conference, the US and China's differences over these very same issues were on full display.

The US pressed China to halt its militarisation in the South China Sea, with Mr Pompeo saying he urged China to live up to its past commitments on the issue.

But China said the US should stop sending its vessels and aircraft close to Chinese islands and reefs.

Said Mr Yang: "We respect the United States interest in the Asia Pacific. At the same time, we expect the United States to respect China's security, sovereignty and development interests in the Asia Pacific."

He said that China's construction on its islands and reefs served the interest of the Chinese people and provided public goods to others.

"At the same time, it is necessary for China to build certain security facilities in response to possible threats," he added.

Mr Yang criticised America's freedom of navigation and overflight patrols in the South China Sea, saying: "We believe that no country should use any excuse to engage in militarisation in the region.

He added: "There's no such a problem of the freedom of navigation and overflight being obstructed, so to use the freedom of navigation and overflight as an excuse to pursue military actions is unjustifiable."

Beijing has been unhappy with America's reconnaissance and B-52 bomber flights over the South China Sea, and its sailing of two warships through the Taiwan Strait last month (October). A Chinese destroyer and US warship nearly collided in the disputed waters in September.

Mr Mattis later defended the patrols when responding to a question on the steps the US and China were taking to avoid conflict in the South China Sea, saying: "The United States adheres strictly to international law and the international maritime rules of the road, and we continue to operate anywhere in international waters, international air space, as all nations are entitled to."

The US was also "concerned about China's increasing efforts to coerce others, constraining Taiwan's international space", said Mr Pompeo, while stressing that its one-China policy had not changed. Taiwan's diplomatic allies have dwindled to just 17 in recent months as three countries - El Salvador, Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic - severed ties with it in favour of China.

Responding in his opening remarks, Mr Yang - a career diplomat and former ambassador to the US - stressed repeatedly that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China.

He added: "Taiwan independent forces and their separatist activities pose the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The US should recognise it clearly."

The US was also concerned about China's repression of religious groups, said Mr Pompeo, referring to reports that China was holding 800,000 Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and other religious minorities in reeducation camps.

Mr Yang replied that Chinese citizens had the freedom to believe or not believe in religion, and that their human rights had been fully respected and protected.

He added: "Matters related to Xinjiang are China's internal affairs. Foreign countries have no right to interfere."

Both leaders stressed, however, that cooperation remained essential on the many central issues both countries face, such as the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Emphasising the win-win nature of cooperation, Mr Yang said that millions had been lifted out of poverty in China, and cited US-Chinese Business Council figures showing that trade had saved every American family US$850 (S$1,172) annually and created as many as six million jobs in this country.

Said Mr Yang: "For the past four decades, China-US relations have been moving forward despite all the twists and turns and have...delivered benefits to both countries and the world."

He added: "We hope that our two sides will work in concert and come together, focus on cooperation, manage differences, and advance China-US relations along the right track."

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