Kamala Harris has accused China of coercion and intimidation to back unlawful claims in the South China Sea.
Her comment came on Tuesday during a visit to Southeast Asia, a region she said was ‘a top priority’ to the US.
The U.S. administration has called rivalry with China “the biggest geopolitical test” of the century and Southeast Asia has seen a series of high-profile visits by top administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as both countries try to outrun each other for world supremacy.
Harris’s seven-day trip to Singapore and Vietnam, only her second time out of the country since assuming the office in January, is aimed at standing up to China’s growing security and economic influence as she seeks to rally Asian countries against Beijing and shore up US credibility in the wake of a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In her speech in Singapore, Harris laid out the U.S. vision for the region built on human rights and a rules based international order and sought to solidify a U.S. pivot towards Asia.
“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” she said.
According to her, diverting attention and resources to the Indo-pacific region has become a centrepiece of President Joe Biden’s administration, as it turns away from old security preoccupations with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
“Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” she said.
“The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats.”
A top Chinese diplomat last month accused the United States of creating an “imaginary enemy” to divert attention from domestic problems and to suppress China.
This is as the U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations through the disputed waters, which China objects to, saying they do not help promote peace or stability.
China claims almost all of the resource-rich sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, with competing claims from four Southeast Asian states as well as Taiwan.
The country came under US sheer monitoring and upscaled interest in the area after Beijing deployed a range of military hardware, including anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles there, and ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision at The Hague that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis.