United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently expressed concerns about China’s “destabilizing” activity near Taiwan and the South China Sea. The Defense Department says Esper made the comments in a telephone call with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
Reuters news agency says the call was believed to have been the first between the two since March. It came as ties between the two sides have worsened over several issues. They include China’s reaction to the coronavirus, ties to technology equipment maker Huawei, territorial claims in the South China Sea and new laws in Hong Kong.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that Wei “urged the U.S. “to stop erroneous words… and control maritime risks,” among other requests.
On Thursday, China criticized a planned visit to Taiwan by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. He would be the highest-level U.S. official to visit island in 40 years.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and does not recognize the island as an independent nation.
Separately, Australia has been taking a more aggressive position toward China. Some observers believe this will help political and military actions among U.S.-allied nations that want to limit China’s expansion.
The Australian government ended its neutral position toward China in recent weeks. While the two countries have strong trade relations, Australia openly supported the U.S. position on the issue of the South China Sea. In a letter to the United Nations, Australia called China’s territorial claims to the waterway “illegal.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in a speech that his country would work more closely with India, Japan, and the United States. Those four countries belong to a group known as the Quad. It was set up in 2007 to discuss security issues in Asia, including China’s activities.
“It appears at least from the Australian end that Australia is sort of trying to take a significant directive role rather than a follower role,” said Stuart Orr. He is a professor of management at Deakin University in Australia.
The United States and Australia have cooperated for many years to resist foreign governments that U.S. officials dislike. Now the U.S. is involved in a trade war with China. Both U.S. and Australian officials suspect China of technology-related crimes. They also want China to launch an investigation into the cause of the coronavirus.
Two months ago, Morrison said his country had been the target of a “state-based” cyber-attack. China denied the accusation.
“I think Washington and Canberra… have a much stronger sense of unity about confronting China in a smart way,” said Stephen Nagy of the International Christian University in Tokyo.
None of the Quad countries claim the South China Sea, but none of them want China to claim it either.
Fish, energy, shipping lanes
China claims parts of the South China Sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. All five competing claimants are much weaker than China, but all value the sea for its fishing, energy, and shipping.
Chinese officials say the waterway is China’s historically, and they claim nearly 90 percent of it.
Australia’s leadership role in the Quad could mean more joint naval exercises that anger China, experts believe.
Japanese and Australian forces joined the USS Ronald Reagan last month for joint exercises southeast of China.
U.S.-Australia military exercises will gain speed, especially if they involve Japan, India, and traditional U.S. European allies such as France and Britain, notes Carl Thayer. He is an expert on Southeast Asia who formerly taught at the University of New South Wales.
I’m Susan Shand.
VOA’s Ralph Jennings and the Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
destabilize – v. to make insecure
erroneous – adj. incorrect
maritime – adj. at sea, or sea-related
significant – adj. important, noticeable
role – n. one's position
confront – v. to force a meeting or to force someone out of hiding