China threatens Pacific's stability: US commander

SYDNEY • China is threatening the sovereignty of small Pacific Islands and undermining the region's stability, a top United States military commander has said, in comments likely to inflame tension with Beijing.

While US-China relations improved last month with the signing of a partial trade deal that defused an 18-month row that has hit global growth, strains remain.

Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said yesterday that the US "was all in" to counter China in the Pacific, citing its "excessive territorial claims, debt-trap diplomacy, violations of international agreements, theft of intellectual property, military intimidation and outright corruption".

"The Communist Party of China seeks to control the flow of trade, finance, communications, politics and the way of life in the Indo-Pacific," Adm Davidson said in a speech in Sydney.

Beijing has in the past rejected accusations of aggressive behaviour and of luring small economies into debt "traps".

China has been more active in the resource-rich Pacific in recent years, seeking to extend influence with aid and encouraging countries away from diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province with no right to state-to-state ties.

China's increasing assertiveness in the energy-rich South China Sea, in particular, has also raised US and regional concerns.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, through which some US$3.4 trillion (S$4.7 trillion) in shipping passes each year.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also claim sovereignty over parts of the vast waterway.

Adm Davidson's comments came at the end of a visit to old ally Australia, which included talks with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Australia, which long enjoyed unrivalled influence in the Pacific, has in recent years been more assertive in maintaining its standing in the region.

Adm Davidson said: "Beijing has showed a willingness to intervene in free markets and hurt Australian companies simply because the Australian government has exercised its sovereign right to exercise its national security."

The US commander also said he hoped Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to scrap a deal allowing US forces to be based in the country would be re-thought.

Adm Davidson warned that ending the US-Philippine security pact would hurt counter-terrorism efforts in the Philippines' restive south, putting him at odds with commander-in-chief Donald Trump.

Manila has given "180-day notice so we have some time for diplomatic efforts", Adm Davidson said.

President Trump has said he would be fine with ending the Visiting Forces Agreement as it would save the US "a lot of money".

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2020, with the headline 'China threatens Pacific's stability: US commander'. Print Edition | Subscribe