US concerned about China's pressures on Taiwan and in South China Sea: Defence official

KUALA LUMPUR - The United States will continue to support Taiwan and provide it with defence capabilities as China ramps up pressure on the self-ruled island.

US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver, who is visiting Malaysia, said that the US is concerned about China's increasing pressure on Taiwan.

"It's clear the Chinese are increasing pressure on Taiwan in a variety of ways," he told a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday (Aug 14).

"Diplomatic isolation, they've been taking away diplomatic allies of Taiwan, and having them switch recognition. They're putting economic pressure on Taiwan by cutting back tourists. They've been increasing the level and nature of the military activities around Taiwan, for example flying bomber routes all the way around the island," he said.

Taiwan's air force scrambled aircraft in May as Chinese bombers flew around the island, just a few hours after Taiwan vowed not to be cowed amid increased pressure from China.

Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue and a potentially dangerous military flashpoint. China claims the island as part of its own territory and has vowed not to allow any attempts at what it views as Taiwan separatism.

Tension between democratic Taiwan and its big neighbour has increased in recent months, with China suspicious the administration of President Tsai Ing Wen wants to push for the island's formal independence.

Ms Tsai, who took office in 2016, says she wants to maintain the status quo, but will protect Taiwan's security and not be bullied by Beijing. On Tuesday she made a speech in the United States, prompting an official protest from Beijing.

Mr Schriver noted that China's moves were worrying, and not consistent with a peaceful approach.

"It's certainly not winning hearts and minds in Taiwan I think," he said. "Polling suggests China's activities are driving public sentiment away from the idea of reunification."

He said that the US would continue to support Taiwan, including by providing it with defence capabilities for sufficient self defence.

In July, the US sent two warships into the Taiwan Strait, following a series of military drills staged by Beijing around the island.

Mr Schriver also criticised China's actions in the South China Sea, saying that there has been an increase in "that type of behaviour from China not only directed at US surface and maritime aircraft but to other countries as well operating lawfully in the area."

He was asked about an incident last Friday when a US Navy jet flying over the Spratly chain was issued warnings by the Chinese military that it was in Chinese territory and had to leave immediately.

"It's part of a pattern of behaviour. It started with the line reclamation and the militarisation of the outpost and now we are seeing efforts to limit the ability of countries to operate lawfully in that area. So it's telling of China's ultimate aim, which is not to support freedom of navigation but to exert control and to place limitations on our ability to operate there."

China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China's increased militarisation in the region has caused jitters among its neighbours.

Mr Schriver said the US would watch the progress of the Asean Code of Conduct for the South China Sea - a regional effort to lay down rules and proper practice - with "great interest."

"We will support the countries in the region who genuinely want to improve the safety of operations in the South China Sea," he said, adding that the US hoped the code of conduct would not contradict international law and freedom of navigation in international waters.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had previously said that warships should not be stationed in the South China Sea, a view that Mr Schriver says is taken seriously by the US government.

However, he added: "Our track record is a long one, where our operations are supporting the principles of freedom of navigation and international law. So we will continue to do those activities."