Pompeo urges ASEAN to call out Beijing's moves in South China Sea during pandemic

MANILA, Philippines – The United States warned China against taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to further its claims in the South China Sea.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo renewed  Washington's criticism against the "continuing provocative behavior" of Beijing in the maritime area while other countries grappled with containing the virus. 

Pompeo said China’s recent actions showed that even as countries in Southeast Asia were fighting the virus, other security threats such as those in the South China Sea “have not disappeared.”

"In fact, they’ve become more prominent" he said in a statement on Wednesday, April 22 (Thursday, April 23, Manila time). The statement, which discussed the role of the enduring strategic partnership of the US and ASEAN in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the plan for economic recovery,  it also touched on China’s behavior in the South China Sea.  

Pompeo urged the ASEAN countries to call out China’s aggressive behavior in the maritime region. 

"It is important to highlight how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exploiting the world’s focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior. The CCP is exerting military pressure and coercing its neighbors in the SCS," Pompeo said.

"The U.S. strongly opposes China’s bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account too," he added. 

What did China do? Since the virus first spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan, China has doubled down on asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, aggravating tensions in the highly volatile region. 

Just recently, China named two new districts, dividing the South China Sea which included the Paracel island group near Vietnam, and the Spratly island group in the West Philippine Sea. Beijing said the new districts were placed under the control of the Chinese city of Sansha in Hainan province.

Following this, it named 80 features in the maritime area which violated other Southeast Asian countries’ sovereignty and international law.  

In March, a China coast guard ship also harassed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel,  and established two research stations in its artificial islands in Fiery Cross and Subi reefs. The actions was condemned by both Vietnam and the Philippines. 

China likewise continued to deploy its maritime military around the Spratlys and dispatched a flotilla that included among its ships an energy survey vessel  "for the sole purpose of intimidating other claimants from engaging in offshore hydrocarbon development," the US said.  

Aside from this, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported a Chinese navy ship pointed its gun control director at a Philippine Navy ship last February in the Kalayaan Island groups, an area part of Philippine territory but which China claims.

The Philippines on Wednesday, April 22, protested this incident along with China’s declaring parts of Philippine territory as under the Hainan province. 

Vietnam, which claims the Paracels, also protested China's creation of districts in the South China Sea on Monday, April 20, calling it a "serious violation" of its sovereignty. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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