U.S. military commander says China pushing territorial claims under cover of coronavirus

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – China is using the coronavirus as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea through a surge in naval activity meant to intimidate other countries that claim the waters, the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan said on Friday.

There has been a surge of activity by China in the South China Sea with navy ships, coast guard vessels and a naval militia of fishing boats in harassing vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, said Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider.

“Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity,” he told Reuters in a phone interview. He said Beijing had also increased its activity in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan.

Beijing’s increased level of activity would likely continue, predicted Schneider: “I don’t see troughs, I see plateaus,” he said.

China says its maritime activities in the area are peaceful. The press office at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo was not immediately available to comment outside of normal business hours.

Japan hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, including an aircraft carrier strike group, an amphibious expeditionary force and fighter squadrons. In addition to defending Japan, they are deployed to deter China from expanding its influence in the region, including in the South China Sea.

The latest U.S. criticism of China comes as relations have frayed amid accusations by Washington that Beijing failed to warn it quickly enough about the coronavirus. China has dismissed that criticism as an attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to cover up its own mistakes.

Beijing has built military island bases on reefs in the energy-rich South China Sea, in or near waters claimed by other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It imposed a unilateral fishing ban until Aug 16.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. warship sails in disputed South China Sea amid trade tensions

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer sails alongside South Korean multirole guided-missile destroyer Wang Geon during a bilateral exercise in the western Pacific Ocean April 25, 2017. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey L. Adams/Handout via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, a move likely to anger Beijing at a time of rising tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

The busy waterway is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, which include an escalating trade war, American sanctions on China’s military and U.S. relations with Taiwan. Reuters reported on Tuesday that China had denied a request for a U.S. Navy warship to visit the Chinese port city of Qingdao.

The U.S. Navy vessel Wayne E. Meyer, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, carried out the operation, traveling within 12 nautical miles (14 miles/22 km) of Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs, Commander Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the Japan-based U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, told Reuters.

The operation was conducted “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Mommsen added.

The U.S. military operation comes amid an increasingly bitter trade war between China and the United States that sharply escalated on Friday, with both sides leveling more tariffs on each other’s exports.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out worldwide, including areas claimed by allies, and are separate from political considerations.

China and the United States have traded barbs in the past over what Washington has said is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China has called its construction as necessary for self-defense and has said the United States is responsible for ratcheting up tensions by sending warships and military planes close to islands that Beijing claims.

China’s 2019 defense spending will rise 7.5 percent from 2018, according to a budget report. Its military build-up has raised concerns among neighbors and Western allies, particularly with China becoming more assertive in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and over Taiwan, a self-ruled territory Beijing claims as its own.

The U.S. military last year put countering China, along with Russia, at the center of a new national defense strategy, shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on the fight against Islamist militants.

In addition, Vice President Mike Pence, in a visit to Iceland next week, will have talks about “incursions” into the Arctic Circle by China and Russia, a senior Trump administration official said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)

China warships leave Sydney after surprise visit ‘raises hackles’

The Sydney Opera House can be seen as the Chinese naval ship Kunlun Shan departs the Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney, Australia, June 7, 2019. AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Three Chinese warships sailed out of Sydney on Friday after an unannounced visit that came amid a tussle for influence between Australia and China in the Pacific.

The show-of-force call by a frigate, supply ship and amphibious warfare vessel was planned but never announced by Canberra.

“That raised a lot of hackles,” John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday.

“The ships arrived off Darling Point and other famous places in Sydney’s harbor without people knowing in advance … and with armed soldiers and sailors on the decks of the ships looking fairly aggressive.”

They left for China under leaden skies in the early afternoon.

The warships had arrived on the eve of the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Photos showed members of the Chinese community waiting at the navy wharf where the ships docked to greet the sailors.

“It was a reciprocal visit because Australian naval vessels visited China,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara this week.

“So it may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government.”

Ties between Australia and China hit a low last year when Canberra passed laws aimed at thwarting Chinese influence in domestic affairs and also over China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

Australia has offered diplomatic support to U.S. “freedom of navigation” voyages through the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Chinese militarization of South China Sea “excessive”: acting Pentagon chief

An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francis Malasig/Pool

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday that China’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea had been “excessive.”

Shanahan, speaking with reporters in Singapore on the sidelines of a defense forum, said China’s actions in the South China Sea, like installing surface to air missiles, was “excessive” and “overkill.”

China and the United States have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

U.S. ‘playing with fire’ on Taiwan, China says ahead of defense meeting

FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States is “playing with fire” with its support for self-ruled Taiwan, China said on Thursday, in angry comments ahead of a meeting between Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

The two countries, locked in an escalating trade war, are also at odds over a series of strategic issues, from the disputed South China Sea to democratic Taiwan, claimed by China as its sacred territory, to be taken by force if needed.

Wei and Shanahan – who on his first day as acting defense secretary in January said the U.S. military would focus on “China, China, China” – are both attending the annual Shangri-La defense forum in Singapore which begins on Friday, where they are expected to meet.

China has been particularly incensed by recent U.S. Navy patrols in the Taiwan Strait, U.S. legislation in support of Taiwan and a meeting between Taiwan’s national security chief David Lee and White House national security adviser John Bolton.

Speaking at a regular monthly news briefing, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian described military ties between Beijing and Washington as generally good.

But he took a much darker tone when asked about U.S. support for Taiwan, an issue China has long described as the most sensitive in relations between the two countries.

“Recently, the U.S. sides has been continually playing the ‘Taiwan card’, trying in futile to ‘use Taiwan to control China’. This is deluded,” Wu said.

“The series of actions the U.S. side has taken is playing with fire, seriously harms the development of military relations between China and the United States, and seriously harms peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait area.”

Taiwan’s air, sea and land forces conducted an exercise to repel an invading force on Thursday, as its defense minister pledged to defend the island against what it sees as China’s rising military threat.

Washington has no formal ties with U.S. ‘playing with fire’ on Taiwan, China says ahead of defense meeting but is its most important international supporter and main supplier of arms.

A senior U.S. defense official said the fact that Shanahan was going to the Shangri-la dialogue during a period of tension with Iran was a sign that the United States was committed to the region and its allies.

During a meeting with Wei, Shanahan is expected to bring up better communication between the two militaries to avoid the risk of miscalculation, the U.S. official said.

While Wei will likely tackle the Sino-U.S. trade dispute and the hardening Trump administration approaches to Taiwan and the South China Sea, Asian states will be looking for calming messages, according to security experts and regional diplomats.

“Regional countries will be expecting reassurances that China’s intentions are in fact peaceful given its growing military might,” said Singapore-based regional security analyst Ian Storey. Storey, of Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said Wei must also speak to his domestic constituents, given the fact his address and a rare question-and-answer session are expected to be shown prominently in China.

“In the current environment maybe they won’t want him to be too accommodating. He can be expected to blame the U.S. for growing tensions in the South China Sea and there is no way he is going to admit that China is part of the problem.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Idrees Ali in Washington)

U.S., China bicker over ‘extravagant expectations’ on trade deal

A surveillance camera is seen next to containers at a logistics center near Tianjin Port, in northern China, May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Ben Blanchard and David Lawder

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China accused the United States on Monday of harboring “extravagant expectations” for a trade deal, underlining the gulf between the two sides as U.S. action against China’s technology giant Huawei began hitting the global tech sector.

Adding to bilateral tension, the U.S. military said one of its warships sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea on Sunday, the latest in a series of “freedom of navigation operations” to anger Beijing.

Alphabet Inc’s Google has also suspended business with China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services, except those publicly available via open source licensing, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Sunday, in a blow to the company that the U.S. government has sought to blacklist around the world.

Shares in European chipmakers Infineon Technologies, AMS and STMicroelectronics fell sharply on Monday amid worries the Huawei suppliers may suspend shipments to the Chinese firm due to the U.S. blacklisting of it last week.

The Trump administration’s addition of Huawei to a trade blacklist on Thursday immediately enacted restrictions that will make it extremely difficult for it to do business with U.S. counterparts.

In an interview with Fox News Channel recorded last week and aired on Sunday night, Trump said the United States and China “had a very strong deal, we had a good deal, and they changed it. And I said ‘that’s OK, we’re going to tariff their products’.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he didn’t know what Trump was talking about.

“We don’t know what this agreement is the United States is talking about. Perhaps the United States has an agreement they all along had extravagant expectations for, but it’s certainly not a so-called agreement that China agreed to,” he told a daily news briefing.

The reason the last round of China-U.S. talks did not reach an agreement is because the United States tried “to achieve unreasonable interests through extreme pressure”, Lu said.”From the start, this wouldn’t work.”

China went into the last round of talks with a sincere and constructive attitude, he said.

“I would like to reiterate once again that China-U.S. economic and trade consultation can only follow the correct track of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit for there to be hope of success.”

No further trade talks between top Chinese and U.S. trade negotiators have been scheduled since the last round ended on May 10 – the same day Trump raised the tariff rate on $200 billion worth of Chinese products from 10 percent.

Trump took the step after the United States said China backtracked on commitments in a draft deal that had been largely agreed to.

STERNER TONE

Since then, China has struck a sterner tone, suggesting that a resumption of talks aimed at ending the 10-month trade war between the world’s two largest economies was unlikely to happen soon.

Beijing has said it will take “necessary measures” to defend the rights of Chinese companies but has not said whether or how it will retaliate over the U.S. actions against Huawei.

The editor of the Global Times, an influential tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, tweeted on Monday that he had switched to a Huawei phone, although he said his decision did not mean that he thinks it is right to boycott Apple and said he was not throwing away his iPhone.

“While the U.S. spares no efforts to subdue Huawei, out of personal belief, I chose to support the well-respected company by using its product,” Hu Xijin tweeted.

Trump, who said the interview with Fox News host Steve Hilton had taken place two days after he raised the tariffs, said he would be happy to simply keep tariffs on Chinese products, but said that he believed that China would eventually make a deal with the United States “because they’re getting killed with the tariffs”.

But he said that he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping before the most recent rounds of talks that any deal could not be “50-50” between the two countries and had to be more in favor of the United States because of past trade practices by China.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Richard Borsuk, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

U.S., Japan, India and Philippines challenge Beijing with naval drills in the South China Sea

Vessels from the U.S. Navy, Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Philippine Navy sail in formation at sea, in this recent taken handout photo released by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force on May 9, 2019. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force/Handout via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – In a fresh show of naval force in the contested South China Sea, a U.S. guided missile destroyer conducted drills with a Japanese aircraft carrier, two Indian naval ships and a Philippine patrol vessel in the waterway claimed by China, the U.S. Navy said on Thursday.

While similar exercises have been held in the South China Sea in the past, the combined display by four countries represents a fresh challenge to Beijing as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to hike tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

“Professional engagements with our allies, partners and friends in the region are opportunities to build upon our existing, strong relationships,” Commander Andrew J. Klug, the captain of the U.S. destroyer, the USS William P. Lawrence, said in a statement.

Japan sent one of its two big aircraft carriers, the Izumo, while India deployed a destroyer, the INS Kolkata, and a tanker, the INS Shakti.

The week of joint drills, which ended Wednesday, comes after two other U.S. warships sailed near islands in the region claimed by China on Monday, prompting a protest from Beijing, which said the action infringed its sovereignty.

The U.S. Navy says it conducts such freedom of navigation operations in international waters around the world, even in seas claimed by its allies, without political considerations.

China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam pushing competing claims to parts of the maritime region. The United States, Japan and India do not have any territorial claims there.

In a separate challenge to Beijing in Asian waters, the USS William P. Lawrence and another U.S. destroyer sailed through the Taiwan Strait in April separating Taiwan, which Beijing views as a rogue province, from the Chinese mainland.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry)

Philippines says Chinese vessels in disputed waters illegal

FILE PHOTO - A view of Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – The presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats near an island occupied by Manila in the disputed South China Sea is illegal and a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, the country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday.

The Philippines military has described them as a “suspected maritime militia”.

“Such actions, when not repudiated by the Chinese government, are deemed to have been adopted by it,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a rare rebuke of Beijing.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued warmer ties with China since taking office in 2016 in exchange for billions of dollars of pledged loans and investment, said he would not allow China to occupy Thitu island because it “belongs to us”.

“I assure you, unless China wants a war with us, I will not allow them to occupy Pagasa”, Duterte told reporters, using the local name for Thitu.

The presence of the trawlers near Thitu island raises questions about their intent and role “in support of coercive objectives”, the ministry said, days after the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest with China.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not refer directly to Manila’s protest, but he said bilateral talks on the South China Sea held in the Philippines on Wednesday were “frank, friendly and constructive”.

Both sides reiterated that South China Sea issues should be resolved peacefully by parties directly involved, he said.

The Philippines has monitored the Chinese boats from January to March this year, according to military data.

“These are suspected maritime militia,” Captain Jason Ramon, spokesman for the military’s Western Command said this week.

“There are times when they are just there without conducting fishing. At times, they are just stationary.”

The Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the busy South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3.4 trillion every year.

FILE PHOTO - A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country's national anthem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

FILE PHOTO – A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country’s national anthem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

“We call on concerned parties to desist from any action and activity that contravenes the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as these generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty, and threatens regional peace and stability,” the Philippines ministry said.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Darren Schuettler and Alison Williams)

Pompeo assures Philippines of U.S. protection in event of sea conflict

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines on Friday it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea, reaffirming a defense code that Manila’s security chiefs have sought to revise.

Speaking during a stopover after a summit in Hanoi with North Korea, Pompeo said a 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defence Treaty would be adhered to if its ally was a victim of aggression, and singled out China as a threat to stability.

“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood as well as that of the United States,” he told a news conference in Manila.

“Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.”

The Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims of sovereignty in the waterway, a conduit for in excess of $3.4 trillion of goods carried annually on commercial vessels.

Pompeo said those countries were responsible for ensuring “these incredibly vital sea lanes are open and China does not pose a threat to closing them down”.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that China and the countries around the South China Sea were working hard to protect peace and stability.

“So if countries outside the region, like the United States, really want to consider the peace, tranquillity and well-being of people in the region, then they shouldn’t make trouble out of nothing and incite trouble,” Lu told reporters.

Pompeo also said allies should be wary of risks of using Chinese technology.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has been seeking a review of the treaty, which was agreed five years after the Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946, with the aim of clarifying the extent to which the United States will defend the Philippines should it come under attack.

Lorenzana’s push for greater certainty comes amid a rapid buildup by Beijing of military assets, coastguard and fishing militia in the South China Sea, most notably on and around artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.

Although there is no longer a permanent U.S. military presence in the Philippines, joint exercises, intelligence exchanges and transfers of hardware take place regularly under various agreements.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, is not a fan and believes that the alliance makes his country a potential target of China, with which he wants stronger business ties.

Duterte has repeatedly questioned the U.S. commitment, noting that it did nothing to stop China from turning reefs into islands equipped with radar, missiles batteries and hangers for fighter jets, and within firing distance of the Philippines.

Pompeo made a courtesy call on Duterte late on Thursday.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin confirmed that discussions on the defense treaty were taking place, but in his own view, it was better not be too specific about its parameters.

“I believe in the old theory of deterrence,” he told reporters. “In vagueness lies the best deterrence.”

He added: “We are very assured, we are very confident that United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo, and in the words of President Trump to our president, ‘we have your back’.”

(Writing by Martin Petty; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

China upbeat on U.S. trade talks, but South China Sea tensions weigh

The head of the U.S. trade delegation Jeffrey Gerrish arrives at a hotel after talks with Chinese officials in Beijing, China, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

BEIJING (Reuters) – China struck an upbeat note on Monday as trade talks resumed with the United States, but also expressed anger at a U.S. Navy mission through the disputed South China Sea, casting a shadow over the prospect for improved Beijing-Washington ties.

White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday also expressed confidence in a possible deal. Asked if the two countries were getting close to a trade agreement, she told Fox News in an interview, “It looks that way, absolutely.”

The United States is expected to keep pressing China on longstanding demands that it reform how it treats American companies’ intellectual property in order to seal a trade deal that could prevent tariffs from rising on Chinese imports.

The latest talks kick off with working level discussions on Monday before high-level discussions later in the week. Negotiations in Washington last month ended without a deal and with the top U.S. negotiator declaring work was needed.

“We, of course, hope, and the people of the world want to see, a good result,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news briefing in Beijing.

The two sides are trying to hammer out a deal before the March 1 deadline when U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are scheduled to increase to 25 percent from 10 percent.

Trump said last week he did not plan to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping before that deadline, dampening hopes that a trade pact could be reached quickly. But the White House’s Conway said a meeting was still possible soon.

Escalating tensions between the United States and China have cost both countries billions of dollars and disrupted global trade and business flows, roiling financial markets.

The same day the latest talks began, two U.S. warships sailed near islands claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea, a U.S. official told Reuters.

Asked if the ships’ passage would impact trade talks, Hua said that “a series of U.S. tricks” showed what Washington was thinking. But Hua added that China believed resolving trade frictions through dialogue was in the interests of both countries’ people, and of global economic growth.

China claims a large part of the South China Sea, and has built artificial islands and air bases there, prompting concern around the region and in Washington.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, and additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Kim Coghill and Nick Zieminski)