BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Monday, China called on the US military to stop flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and to avoid adding "new uncertainties" over Taiwan during high-level talks that underscored the tension between the world's two largest economies.
FILE PHOTO: China's Secretary of Defense General Wei Fenghe looks at a meeting with Brazil's Secretary of Defense Fernando Azevedo e Silva (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil September 2018. REUTERS / Adriano Machado / File Photo
Comments by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, told by a Chinese spokesman, came just two weeks after a senior White House official condemned Chinese "intimidation" in the lively waterway.
It also came a day after Esper publicly accused Beijing of "increasingly forcing and intimidating its strategic goals" in the region.
During talks with closed doors on the sidelines of a gathering of defense ministers in Bangkok, Wei Esper urged "to stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and not to provoke and escalate tensions in the South China Sea," the spokesman, Wu Qian, said.
China claims almost all energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, where it has established military outposts on artificial islands. However, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have demands on parts of the sea.
The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who may want to exploit billions of dollars of oil and gas reserves.
The US Navy regularly troubles China by conducting what it calls "navigation freedom" operations of ships near islands occupied by China in the South China Sea.
Specifically asked what Wei sought for the United States to do differently, and whether it included stopping such freedom travel for navigation, Wu said: "We (call on) the US side to stop intervening in the South China Sea and stop military provocation in the South China Sea . ”
Despite warm words exchanged in front of reporters, Wei and Esper also discussed the thorny issues, including Chinese-controlled Hong Kong, which has seen months of anti-government protests.
They also talk about democratic Taiwan, which is claimed by China as a real landscape and is the Communist Party's most sensitive and important territorial issue.
Fenghe emphasized that Esper China's position that it "would not tolerate any Taiwan independent incident," Wu said, adding that it opposed any official or military contact with Taiwan.
China has previously threatened to attack if Taiwan, which will hold a presidential election next year, goes against independence.
"The Chinese side also requires the US side to carefully handle Taiwan-related issues and not add new uncertainties to the strait," Wu said.
The exchange came a day after the news that China was sailing a carrier group into the delicate Taiwan Strait, led by its first domestic aircraft.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Gerry Doyle