WASHINGTON — The nation's top diplomat for East Asia said in remarks Tuesday that the Trump administration could use sanctions to target Chinese officials' actions in the hotly contested South China Sea.
"Nothing's off the table," David Stilwell, assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said when asked whether the U.S. would consider using sanctions to rein in China.
"There is room for that and this is a language China understands, demonstrable and tangible action," he told a virtual audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Wherever you are, Beijing increasingly wants to stake claims, coerce, and control. By its nature, it cannot accept a pluralistic world with fundamental freedoms of choice and conscience," Stilwell said, adding that U.S. involvement in the region was to simply enforce existing law.
"This is housekeeping. These are things that we should have done for a long time," he said.
Stilwell's comments come on the heels of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's blistering Monday rebuke of Beijing's "campaign of bullying" in the South China Sea.
Pompeo said the U.S. would bolster its position in the region and described the bulk of Chinese territorial claims in the disputed waters as illegal. "The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire," he said.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington also said Monday that the U.S. was "throwing its weight around in every sea of the world."
"Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region," the statement said, adding that the U.S. was "not a country directly involved in the disputes" and was interfering.
The unfolding coronavirus health pandemic and escalated tensions in the South China Sea are the latest in a string of issues rattling the relationship between Washington and Beijing. The world's two largest economies are engaged in a disruptive trade struggle with intellectual property theft and cybersecurity proving to be a major sticking point between the two nations.
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray slammed the Chinese government for its use of espionage and cyberattacks against the United States. He said the Chinese campaign has amounted to "one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history."
The South China Sea, which is home to more than 200 specks of land, serves as a gateway to global sea routes where nearly $4 trillion of trade passes annually. More than $1 trillion of that is linked to the U.S. market. The sea is also home to an estimated $2.6 trillion in recoverable offshore oil and gas.
Five claimants — China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — occupy nearly 70 disputed reefs and islets across the South China Sea. Over the years, claimants have built and expanded approximately 90 outposts on these contested features.
The numerous overlapping sovereign claims to the land have led to it being a home for military outposts. Beijing holds the lion's share of these land features, with approximately 27 outposts peppered throughout.
Beijing's interest in developing the land across the South China Sea is by no means new.
China first took possession of Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef in 1988 and has since outfitted them with deep-water ports, aircraft hangars, communication facilities, administration offices and a 10,000-foot runway.
In May 2018, China quietly installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its fortified outposts west of the Philippines.
According to U.S. intelligence reports, the installations marked the first Chinese missile deployments to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys, to which six countries lay claim, are located approximately two-thirds of the way east from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines.