Beijing has called the US a “troublemaker” after strong criticism from Washington of its claims in the South China Sea and announced sanctions on Lockheed Martin over arms sales to Taiwan.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the country had never sought to “build an empire” in the disputed waters, hitting back at comments by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that “the world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire”.
Pompeo said in a statement on Monday that the US would treat China’s claims as illegal.
“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday the government would put sanctions on Lockheed Martin, the main contractor for a $620m upgrade package for Taiwan’s Patriot surface-to-air missiles.
Sparring between the two countries has escalated in recent weeks over the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, revelations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, and US pressure on its allies to exclude Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from their markets.
China on Tuesday said it was firmly opposed to Washington’s assertions over its claims in the South China Sea, and rejected as “completely unjustified” the allegation that Beijing bullied its neighbours.
“The United States is not a country directly involved in the disputes. However, it has kept interfering in the issue,” the Chinese embassy in the US said in statement published on its website.
“Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”
The US has long rejected Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, which is both home to valuable oil and gas deposits and a vital waterway for the world’s commerce.
Pompeo’s statement on Monday signalled the US’s increasing support for the countries locked in territorial disputes with China over parts of the South China Sea, including the Philippines and Vietnam, after years of the US saying it took no position on individual claims.
“America stands with our south-east Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law,” Pompeo said.
“We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”
Earlier this month, China defended itself against US criticism over Beijing’s military exercises in the South China Sea, saying its activities were “within the scope of China’s territorial sovereignty”.
Beijing claims the majority of the South China Sea through the so-called nine-dash line, a vague delineation based on maps from the 1940s when the Republic of China took over islands from Japanese control.
Pompeo issued his statement to mark the fourth anniversary of a tribunal decision that sided with the Philippines against the nine-dash line. Pompeo said that China, based on the court decision, cannot make claims based on the Scarborough Reef or Spratly Islands, a vast uninhabited archipelago.
The US as a result now rejects Beijing’s claims in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, Luconia Shoals off Malaysia, waters considered in Brunei’s exclusive economic zone and Natuna Besar off Indonesia, Pompeo said.
“Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also rejected Beijing’s southernmost claim of James Shoal, 1,800km (1,150 miles) from the Chinese mainland, saying the area, administered by Malaysia, was completely submerged by water and therefore could not determine a maritime zone.
The 2016 decision was issued by a tribunal under the UN convention on the law of the sea. Pompeo noted that China was a party to it and called the ruling legally binding. The US, however, is one of the few countries that is not part of the convention, with conservatives opposing any loss of autonomy to a global body.
The South China Sea statement comes amid rising tensions surrounding China, including a deadly border clash last month with India that Pompeo called part of a strategy by Beijing to challenge its neighbours.
Trump has also strongly criticised China for not doing more to stop the coronavirus pandemic. After bipartisan calls in Congress, Trump also stepped up pressure on China over its incarceration of more than 1 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.
The US last week imposed sanctions on Chinese officials including Chen Quanguo, the Communist party chief in the western region of Xinjiang.
China on Monday took tit-for-tat action against some of its outspoken critics in Congress, including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and representative Chris Smith.