U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has warned the world’s “free and open” system forged in the wake of World War II is under attack by what he calls China’s “rule-breaking behavior” in the Indo-Pacific region.
Esper spoke in Hawaii, home to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, ahead of travel to Guam and Palau to take part in ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Esper called the Indo-Pacific region the “epicenter” of great power competition, vowing not to “cede an inch” to countries that threaten international freedoms, in an apparent dig at China.
“The People’s Liberation Army continues to pursue an aggressive modernization plan to achieve a world-class military by the middle of the century,” Esper said. “This will undoubtedly embolden the PLA’s provocative behavior in the South and East China Seas and anywhere else the Chinese government has deemed critical to its interests.”
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian told news media Thursday that the U.S. has "continued to provoke tensions and undermine China's sovereignty and security." He added that current diplomatic relations between the two countries have been "severely damaged.”
China has made expansive claims over the South China Sea, basing military weapons and aircraft on artificial islands built atop reefs to bolster its territorial claims, which overlap with the territorial claims of other nations.
The United States frequently conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to dispute Beijing’s claims and to promote free passage through international waters that carry about half the world's merchant fleet tonnage, worth trillions of dollars each year.
The U.S. imposed sanctions Wednesday on 24 Chinese companies and several people who allegedly participated in building and militarizing disputed artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The U.S. Commerce Department said in a statement the companies played a “role in helping the Chinese military” with the construction project, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a separate announcement that Washington was placing visa restrictions on individuals “responsible” or “complicit” in the project.
“Since 2013, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has used its state-owned enterprises to dredge and reclaim more than 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) on disputed features in the South China Sea, destabilizing the region, trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbors, and causing untold environmental devastation,” Pompeo said.
Esper also called on U.S. allies in the region to increase their defense spending and rely less on Chinese technology, a “collective detriment” to regional allies.
“I continue to encourage all like-minded partners to carefully consider their choices regarding telecommunications infrastructure and assess the long-term, collective risks of using Chinese state-backed vendors,” he said.
VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report.