US, China trade jibes as military tensions worsen

(Reuters) – US and China trade jibes as military tensions grow between the world’s two largest economies, with the US Secretary of Defense promising not to “give an inch” in the Pacific and China saying Washington risked the lives of soldiers.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listens to US State Department news after the 30th AUSMIN in Washington, DC July 28, 2020. Brendan Smialowski / Pool via REUTERS

Both are in conflict over issues of technology and human rights for Chinese military activities in the disputed South China Sea, with each accusing the other of deliberately provocative behavior.

In the latest U.S. move against China ahead of the November presidential election, Washington on Wednesday blacklisted 24 Chinese companies and targeted individuals over construction and military actions in the busy South China Sea waterway.

On Thursday, a U.S. Navy warship conducted a routine operation off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, often criticized by Beijing as a threat to its sovereignty.

In Hawaii, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted Beijing to project worldwide through its military.

“To advance the CCP’s agenda, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing an aggressive modernization plan to reach a world-class army by the middle of the century,” Esper said.

“This will undoubtedly address the provocative behavior of the PLA in the Sea and East China Sea, and everywhere else the Chinese government has taken a critical view of its interests.”

Esper said, however, that the United States “would hopefully continue to work with the People’s Republic of China to get them back on a path that is more in line with international rules based order.”

Speaking for a regional tour, Esper described the Indo-Pacific Ocean as the epicenter of a “great power competition with China.”

He added, “We will not relinquish this region, an inch of land if you will, to another country, any other country that thinks its form of government, its views on human rights, its views on sovereignty, its views on freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, all those things that are somehow better than what many of us share. ”

President Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly accused China of problems including the treatment of the coronavirus, a common theme in this week’s Republican National Convention.

In Beijing, the Ministry of Defense of China fired back at “certain American politicians” that they damaged Sino-American military ties in the run-up to the November elections for their own selfish gain, and even sought to make military clashes.

“This kind of behavior endangers the lives of frontline officers and soldiers on both sides,” spokesman Wu Qian told reporters at a monthly briefing on Thursday.

China is not afraid of “provocation and pressure” from the United States, and will resolutely defend itself and not cause the United States any problems, he added.

“We hope that the US side will truly adopt a strategic vision, view China’s development with an open and rational attitude, and leave behind the swamp of fear and entanglement.”

The tension has fueled fears of accidental conflict.

A U.S. Defense Department official told Reuters on Wednesday that China had launched four medium-range missiles that hit the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said it was concerned about China’s recent military exercises, including firing rockets.

“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

It added that the U.S. military had told Chinese authorities in July that it would continue the situation with “the expectation that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) will reduce its militarization and coercion of its neighbors in the South China Sea.”

Reported by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell, Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Idrees Ali in Washington; Edited by Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O’Brien

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