BEIJING - China's top diplomat has accused the United States and other Western nations of disrupting regional stability in the South China Sea, even as he urged South-east Asian countries to "press ahead" with the negotiations on a code to manage maritime and territorial disputes in the contested waters.
In a wide-ranging annual press conference that lasted more than 90 minutes, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeatedly warned the US of interfering in its domestic affairs, although he also held out an olive branch to the new Biden administration, calling for dialogue and cooperation.
Bilateral relations sank to a historic low under the previous Trump administration, with both sides engaged in disputes on issues including trade, technology, the pandemic and Taiwan.
"Countries in the region and around the world in recent years can all see clearly that the factors for instability and security risks in the South China Sea come mainly from outside the region," he said on Sunday in response to a question by The Straits Times.
China and Asean have reached common understanding on maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, but "the US and some other Western countries want to see instability in the region", he said, adding that they have used the freedom of navigation principle to "stir up the situation" and created divisions among the countries in the contested waters.
The US and its allies such as Australia and Britain have conducted frequent freedom of navigation operations there in a bid to challenge China's territorial claims that overlap with Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan.
The resource-rich region has become a potential flashpoint, and Beijing has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea, building military bases on artificial islands there.
Since December 2019, an increasing number of countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, the US, Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, have filed diplomatic notes to the United Nations rejecting Chinese claims to the region.
Mr Wang urged countries to “press ahead” with negotiations to conclude a code of conduct between China and Asean states on the South China Sea, but experts say this would be unlikely, as negotiations over a code of conduct between China and Asean states have been hit by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Dr Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said the fact that senior officials from Asean and China were unable to meet face-to-face in the past year have stalled talks.
“Most governments will want to get the pandemic under control before they will want to talk about the (code of conduct),” said Dr Koh, a maritime security expert.
On Sunday,Mr Wang also warned the US against supporting Taiwan's pro-independence movement, saying it will take military action to safeguard its sovereignty.
"We have the capability to thwart separatist attempts for Taiwan independence forces in whatever form," he warned, adding that he hopes the new US administration will abide by its one-China policy, which recognises Taiwan as part of mainland China.
He urged Washington to remove all its "unreasonable restrictions" on bilateral cooperation as early as possible, and not "create new obstacles".
Both sides should engage in healthy competition fairly, he said, and cooperate on a Covid-19 response, economic recovery and climate change.
The new Biden administration has indicated that it will continue to be tough on China and may not roll back certain sanctions introduced by the previous president.
Associate professor Li Mingjiang from RSIS said that unlike during the Trump administration, there would would be “limited cooperation between both sides on issues where “there are no serious clashing interests” – such as on climate change and World Trade Organisation reforms.
But Beijing will be especially wary about Washington’s fresh focus on engaging Asean nations, he noted.
“This is something that China will be watching very closely – Washington’s new policy towards Southeast Asia and how it engages the region,” he said.