Empire and aggression have no place in the region, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Singapore on Thursday, slamming Beijing for what he called its “illegal and dangerous” militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
All nations should be secure in their sovereignty, Pence told the East Asia summit that brought together leaders of the ASEAN bloc and Asia-Pacific powers including the United States and two of its rivals, China and Russia.
“We hold that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific, and that progress is built on a foundation of independence and partnership,” said Pence “Our vision excludes no nation, requiring only that they treat their neighbors with respect.”
Pence was representing U.S. President Donald Trump at the annual 18-nation summit, which was held in parallel with the 33rd summit of ASEAN leaders.
In a wide-ranging speech in which he asserted Washington’s commitment to closer investment, trade and security ties with nations in the Indo-Pacific region, the American vice president did not hold back in criticizing China directly.
“Let me be clear: China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea is illegal and dangerous. It threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world,” he said, according to a transcript from the White House.
“For our part, the United States will continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. Harassment will not deter us; it only strengthens our resolve,” Pence added.
Pence praised the Philippines and Thailand – two longtime ASEAN countries that are building bilateral ties with Beijing – as being among several old and cherished U.S. allies in the region.
He also assured ASEAN leaders that the 10-nation bloc “is at the center of our Indo-Pacific strategy” and has a “pre-eminent role to play in regional affairs.”
Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of host country Singapore, which holds the ASEAN chair, said the bloc was trying to balance relations with both Beijing and Washington.
The U.S.-China relationship has “profound implications to ASEAN,” Lee said.
“ASEAN countries want to be able to engage with both U.S. and China, and maximize the scope and advantages of our cooperation,” he added. “Therefore, we hope that the US-China relations remain stable and hope that all will work out.”
Pence’s comments on the South China Sea came less than a week after the U.S., in a rare statement, demanded that Beijing withdraw its missile systems from the disputed Spratly islands off the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Last month, Pence also hit back at China’s alleged aggression, and what security analysts had described as false benevolence by using its debt-trap strategy – of giving smaller nations massive infrastructure loans and demanding unreasonable returns in kind when they default.
Analysts say that China has been applying the same strategy in the region, ingratiating itself to countries such as the Philippines by giving it huge loans allegedly in exchange for its silence on issues like the South China Sea.
The Philippines, along with ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, have been contesting parts of the sea region along with China and Taiwan.
China and the ASEAN bloc have been working on a code of conduct to govern actions in the region.
On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the East Asia summit that Beijing hoped that this code would “be finished in three years’ time.”
The Philippines’ leader, Rodrigo Duterte, said the timeframe given by China would mean “radical changes in the laws governing international waters.”
“And all of these things, China is there. That’s a reality and America and everybody should realize that they are there,” Duterte told reporters.
He cautioned against military drills in the disputed region, noting that China “is already in possession” of parts of the disputed region.
“It’s now in their hands. So why do you have to create frictions – (a) strong military activity that will prompt a response from China,” Duterte said.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.