US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says his country is committed to protecting its Southeast Asian allies against what he called China’s aggression.
“Beijing’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law,” Austin said in a conference in Singapore hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
“That assertion treads on the sovereignty of the states in the region,” he added.
Austin further claimed that Washington would work with its regional partners to counter Beijing’s assertive military actions.
The US and China are at odds over a range of issues, including alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the disputed territories in the South China Sea, cyberattacks, and Beijing's policies regarding Hong Kong.
“Unfortunately, Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water,” Austin noted. “We have also seen aggression against India ... destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan ... and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected the claims made by US Secretary of Defense, saying Washington is looking for its own geopolitical interests via sowing discord among the regional countries.
“The US ignored the facts, deliberately smeared China, interfered in China’s internal affairs and sowed discords among regional countries with the aim of serving its own geopolitical interest," Zhao said. "We admonish the US side not to make an issue about China at every turn and do more for the benefit of peace and stability in the region.”
The rivalry between the US and China has intensified in recent years with Beijing’s growing international clout and rapid economic progress, emerging as a viable counter-weight to the US.
China hoped for an improvement in relations under President Joe Biden, who succeeded Donald Trump in January, but the new administration has shown no sign of backing down on hardline policies toward China.