The United States is accusing China of taking advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak and increasing its military activities near Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
“The United States strongly opposes China's bullying,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, ahead of a virtual meeting between the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers later in the day.
“We've also seen that the Chinese Communist Party is exerting military pressure on Taiwan and coercing its neighbors in the South China Sea, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel. We hope other nations will hold them to account,” added Pompeo during a press briefing, hours before his videoconference with ASEAN ministers.
The U.S. and ASEAN had been eyeing a summit to boost ties, at a time when China continues to expand its influence in Southeast Asia. The dialogue was scheduled for March but later postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The top U.S. diplomat’s warning Wednesday also comes as the U.S. has been conducting flight operations in the South China Sea since mid-April, a move that Washington says demonstrates its “enduring seven-decade commitment to the prosperity and security of the Indo-Pacific.”
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing has announced new “research stations” on land features in the disputed waters, including on military bases it built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, as well as special military aircraft landings on Fiery Cross Reef, according to the State Department.
Chinese officials have said that an attempt of any form to “deny China's sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea,” and “enforce illegal claims” will be invalid and “doomed to fail."
China is stepping up patrols in the disputed South China Sea, with multiple news reports saying the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8 fleet passed through disputed tracts of the South China Sea last week.
Taiwan’s defense ministry says a Chinese aircraft carrier and five accompanying warships were spotted prowling the waters near Taiwan’s east coast and then into seas to the south of Taiwan around April 11 and 12, carrying out exercises.
Analysts say China may be sending a deterrent message to the U.S. that its military is not weakened by the coronavirus outbreak.
“China’s People’s Liberation Army is again quite active in the midst of this coronavirus, and it shows no signs of slowing down its operations,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official and now a senior research fellow at National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
As nations continue to battle the spread of COVID-19, the United States is also renewing its criticism that China’s ruling Communist Party failed to report the outbreak in a timely manner to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Citing the International Health Regulations (IHR) adopted by the WHO, Pompeo told reporters Wednesday that “the world set very clear expectations for how every country must disclose data to protect global health. For example, Article 6 of the IHR says that “each state party shall notify the World Health Organization within 24 hours of all events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern within its territory.”
China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology is believed to have completed the mapping of the coronavirus genome, but that data has not been made public by Chinese authorities.
"We still do not have a sample of the virus, nor has the world had access to the facilities or other locations where this virus may have originated inside of Wuhan," Pompeo said, urging China to allow U.S. scientists and medical professionals into the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other labs.
China has rejected charges that it mishandled the outbreak, saying it has been transparent and open about the spread of the virus.