SYDNEY – China is destabilizing the Indo-Pacific, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday, accusing Beijing of practicing predatory economics, intellectual property theft and weapons of global goods.
Esper’s comments on his first trip abroad as US Secretary of Defense threaten to inflame the already strained relations between Washington and Beijing, which are experiencing a growing trade war.
China’s increasing assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, is creating concern in the region, and Washington is challenging Chinese maritime hegemony and seeking stronger ties with nations that challenge Beijing.
“We firmly believe no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific and we are working alongside our allies and partners to address the region’s pressing security needs, Esper told reporters in Sydney.
“We also stand firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behavior, destabilizing behavior from China. This includes weaponizing the global commons, using predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals, and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property.”
China has increased tensions in the region and infuriated the United States by building military equipment and other facilities on artificial islands.
China claims large parts of the South China Sea, where goods pass on vessels valued at about $3.4 trillion annually. Countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest territorial claims.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday decried “decades of bad behavior” from China that have hampered free trade, laying out a case at a Southeast Asian forum in Bangkok for Washington’s trade war with Beijing.
US President Donald Trump on Thursday slapped 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, stunning financial markets and ending a month-long trade war truce. China vowed on Friday to fight back.
Both Esper and Pompeo met with their Australian counterparts in Sydney on Sunday at an annual security forum where the United States and Australia pledged to strengthen opposition to Chinese activities in the Pacific.
The United States and its Western allies worry that China is using foreign aid to secure greater influence over small Pacific countries which control vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.
Australia, traditionally the major power in the South Pacific, has promised up to A$3 billion ($2.04 billion) in grants and cheap loans to counter what Washington describes as China’s “payday loan diplomacy”.
“Cooperation with us and our Australian friends bring mutual benefits, not zeros, deals where one side wins and other risks losing,” said Pompeo in a thinly veiled criticism of China’s aid.