China says U.S. criticism over South China Sea is slander

BEIJING (Reuters) – Remarks by U.S. officials on China’s role in the South China Sea are slanderous, its foreign ministry said on Monday, after the United States voiced concern over reports of Chinese interference with oil and gas activities in the disputed waters.

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

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department said China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threatened regional energy security and undermined the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton also said on Twitter that China’s coercive behavior towards its Southeast Asian neighbors was counterproductive and threatened regional peace and stability, echoing earlier comments by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said such comments by Bolton and Pompeo were baseless, adding that the United States and other “external forces” were stirring up trouble in the South China Sea.

“This is slander against Chinese and Southeast Asian countries’ efforts to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea and properly manage differences,” Geng told a news briefing on Monday. “Countries and people in the region will not believe their words.”

He added, “We urge the United States to stop such irresponsible behavior and respect the efforts of China and ASEAN countries to resolve differences through dialogue and work for peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

U.S.-based think tanks have reported that Chinese and Vietnamese vessels have engaged in a standoff for several weeks near an oil block in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

Vietnam, which for years has been embroiled in a dispute with China over the potentially energy-rich region, on Friday accused a Chinese oil survey vessel and its escorts of violating its sovereignty and demanded that China remove the ships from Vietnamese waters.

The busy waterway of the South China Sea is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship.

The two countries have repeatedly traded barbs over what Washington calls Beijing’s militarisation of the waters by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

China says the United States is to blame for tension by repeatedly sending warships close to Chinese-held islands, and that China’s sovereignty in the area is irrefutable.

ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

(Reporting by Catherine Cadell; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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