SINGAPORE (Dispatches) -- U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday accused Beijing of coercion and intimidation to back its claims in the South China Sea, as she pledged during a visit to Southeast Asia U.S. support for its allies against China.
Harris’s seven-day trip to Singapore and Vietnam, only her second foray internationally, is aimed at rallying support for an aggressive U.S. campaign to confront China’s growing security and economic influence.
In a speech in Singapore, Harris laid out the U.S. vision for the region as she sought to solidify a U.S. pivot towards Asia.
She said the United States had put itself forward to host a 2023 meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific trade group APEC, which includes the United States, China and Russia.
Diverting attention and resources to the 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.
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.
“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris thundered in her speech.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, in response to Harris’s comments, said the “order” that the United States wanted was one in which it could “willfully slander, oppress, coerce and bully other countries and not have to pay any price”.
China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the waters, which are crossed by vital shipping lanes and also contain gas fields and rich fishing grounds.
The U.S. Navy regularly conducts operations through the waters, which China objects to, saying they do not help promote peace or stability.
On board the USS Tulsa, a U.S. combat ship at the Changi Naval base in Singapore on Monday, Harris told U.S. sailors “a big part of the history of the 21st century will be written about this very region” and their operations were pivotal.
On Monday, Harris began her trip by meeting Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“Our partnerships in Singapore, in Southeast Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States,” Harris said on Tuesday, adding the region was “critically important to our nation’s security and prosperity”.
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.