China is threatening the sovereignty of small Pacific Islands and undermining the region’s stability, a top US military commander said yesterday, in comments likely to inflame tensions with Beijing.
US-China relations last month improved with the signing of a “phase one” trade deal that defused an 18-month row that has hit global growth, but strains remain.
US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson — commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command — said in Sydney that the US “was all in” to counter China in the Pacific, citing Beijing’s “excessive territorial claims, debt-trap diplomacy, violations of international agreements, theft of international property, military intimidation and outright corruption.”
“The Communist Party of China seeks to control the flow of trade, finance, communications, politics and the way of life in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
China’s embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China has rejected accusations of aggressive behavior and of luring small economies into debt “traps.”
China has been more active in the resource-rich Pacific in the past few years, seeking to extend influence with aid and encouraging countries away from diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
China’s increasing assertiveness in the energy-rich South China Sea, in particular, has raised US and regional concerns.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which about US$3.4 trillion in shipping passes each year. Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei also have overlapping claims to parts or all of the sea.
Davidson’s comments came at the end of a visit to old ally Australia, which included talks with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Australia, which long enjoyed unrivalled influence in the Pacific, has in the past several years been more assertive in maintaining its standing in the region.
In 2018, it launched a A$3 billion (US$2 billion) fund to offer Pacific countries grants and cheap loans for infrastructure.
While vying for influence in the Pacific, Australia and China have also argued over Chinese activities in Australia.
Australia last year concluded that China was responsible for a cyberattack on its parliament and its three largest political parties — although it declined to publicize its findings amid concern of trade disruptions.
China denied responsibility.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, buying more than one-third of its total exports, and sending more than 1 million tourists and students there each year.
“Beijing has showed a willingness to intervene in free markets and hurt Australian companies simply because the Australian government has exercised its sovereign right to exercise its national security,” Davidson said.