- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2019

The State Department ramped up its criticism of Chinese interference activities in East Asia Thursday, asserting that Beijing has intensified its efforts to muscle oil and gas opportunities away from smaller countries in the region — most notably Vietnam.

China’s redeployment of a government-owned survey vessel, together with armed escorts, into waters offshore Vietnam near Vanguard Bank on August 13, is an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea,” the department said in a statement.

“The United States is deeply concerned that China is continuing its interference with Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in the statement.

She added that China’s actions have prompted U.S. officials to question Beijing’s commitment to formal Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreements on maritime dispute resolutions in the region.

“In recent weeks, China has taken a series of aggressive steps to interfere with ASEAN claimants’ longstanding, well-established economic activities, in an attempt both to coerce them to reject partnerships with foreign oil and gas firms, and to work only with China’s state-owned enterprises,” Ms. Ortagus said. “In the case of Vanguard Bank, China is pressuring Vietnam over its work with a Russian energy firm and other international partners.”

Vietnam, which has developed increasingly close ties with Washington given shared concerns about China, has demanded that Beijing remove a Chinese government owned survey vessel amid a month-long standoff in waters seen as a potential global flashpoint, according to Reuters.

A report by the news agency Thursday said China’s “Haiyang Dizhi 8” vessel first entered waters that Vietnam claims as its exclusive economic zone in July and appeared to conduct a seismic survey. It left the area on Aug. 7 and returned a week later escorted by Chinese coast guard vessels.

Dispute over the Haiyang Dizhi 8 has marked the latest in years of tension in the South China Sea amid competing sovereignty claims by Beijing and smaller nations on China’s periphery over undersea territory believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves.

China’s actions undermine regional peace and security, impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states by blocking their access to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources,” Ms. Ortagus said the State Department statement.

She went on to argue that the recent developments “demonstrate China’s disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their [Exclusive Economic Zones], under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which China ratified in 1996.”

The statement also touted U.S. companies as “world leaders in the exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon resources, including offshore and in the South China Sea.”

As a result, Washington “strongly opposes any efforts by China to threaten or coerce partner countries into withholding cooperation with non-Chinese firms, or otherwise harassing their cooperative activities,” the statement said.

There was no immediate response Thursday from Chinese authorities, although Reuters cited Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, as saying last month that maritime problems involving Vietnam should not interfere with close ties between the two nations that both have communist governments.

Thursday’s statement comes against a backdrop of wider U.S.-China tension amid the Trump administration’s trade dispute with Beijing and Chinese government claims that U.S. officials have fomented unrest in Hong Kong by clandestinely backing pro-democracy demonstrations in the semi-autonomous Chinese-ruled territory.

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