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International relations

China calls US 'biggest driver' of South China Sea militarization

Sparks fly at East Asia Summit as Japan's Motegi echoes Washington's concerns

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the ASEAN-China ministerial meeting online on Sept. 9. (Photo courtesy of the ASEAN Secretariat / Kusuma Pandu Wijaya)

NEW YORK/TOKYO -- The U.S. has become the "biggest driver of the militarization of the South China Sea," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Wednesday, hitting back at Washington's recent swipes and sanctions against Beijing's role in the disputed waters.

Wang made the remarks on the first day of the East Asia Summit, where his American counterpart, Mike Pompeo, was also present. He blasted the U.S. for flaunting its force in the South China Sea and escalating risks of regional conflicts for political gain, according to a transcript published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

"Peace and stability are China's greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea," Wang said.

The four-day summit, held virtually this year, marks the first public meeting between the two officials since Washington in late August blacklisted subsidiaries of China Communications Construction Company, citing its role in building islands in the South China Sea. CCCC is also heavily involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Wang's speech at the forum came a day after he announced the launch of China's Global Data Security Initiative, a similar hit-back against Washington, which he accused of "bullying" and preying on "enterprises of other countries who have a competitive edge."

Speaking to the region's foreign ministers on Wednesday, Wang maintained that China's island-building activities over the years have been aimed at improving living conditions and providing public goods to the South China Sea, as well as out of self-defense. He added that Beijing remains committed to "peace and stability" in the region.

Pompeo has slammed Beijing for "destabilizing the region" and "trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbors" when announcing sanctions against state-owned CCCC. The U.S. Department of State has said it intends to "share details on our efforts to support a free and open region" at the summit and launch a partnership with countries in the Mekong region.

After the videoconference, Pompeo tweeted about "security and prosperity" in the greater Indo-Pacific region.

In Japan, and without naming China, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi cited the "continual attempts to unilaterally change the status quo" in the East and South China seas.

Countries in the region must work together to improve the state of affairs, Motegi said, adding that he "shares deep concerns."

Motegi's comments appear to reference China's activities in the South China Sea and around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.

"Legitimate rights under international law must be respected," such as those concerning freedom of marine navigation and overflight, Motegi said, according to Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In addition, Motegi touched on a code of conduct for the South China Sea that China is negotiating with Southeast Asian nations.

"The rights of third nations cannot be infringed upon, and there needs to be consistency with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," Motegi said.

Regarding the situation in Hong Kong, Motegi mentioned "deep and increasing concerns over a series of developments, including the enactment of national security legislation and the subsequent enforcement.

"It's crucial that Hong Kong continues to develop democratically and stably."

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