July 21, 2020 / 1:08 PM / 20 days ago

Pentagon chief looking to visit China this year amid tensions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday he hoped to visit China by the end of the year to improve “crisis-communications” channels and address other areas of mutual interest as he condemned China’s maritime activity in the South China Sea.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on 'Department of Defense Authorities and Roles Related to Civilian Law Enforcement' in Washington, DC, U.S. July 9, 2020. Greg Nash/Pool via REUTERS

Earlier this month, the United States rejected China’s claim to offshore resources in much of the South China Sea, drawing criticism from China which said the U.S. position raised tension in the region, highlighting an increasingly testy relationship.

“Before the year is out, I hope to visit the PRC for the first time as secretary in order to enhance cooperation on areas of common interest, establish the systems necessary for crisis communications and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system,” Esper said, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

It was unclear whether Esper’s trip would be contingent upon securing special travel waivers given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has strained already fraught relations between the world’s two largest economies.

International diplomatic and defence travel has been severely curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has added strain to U.S.-China relations.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea and sent warships regularly through the strategic waterway, but recent comments reflect a harsher tone.

“We want to deter against coercive behaviour,” Esper said.

He said China had intensified its’ “bad behaviour” in the past six months.

China has built bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.

The South China Sea is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which includes Beijing’s increased pressure on Taiwan.

Esper said nobody in Taiwan believed China had any intention of living up to its “one country, two systems” principle.

He said China had carried out simulated exercises to take over a Taiwanese-controlled island, calling it a destabilising activity that increased the risk of miscalculation.

Esper did not directly answer a question on whether the Pentagon was considering a reduction in U.S. forces in South Korea amid stalled talks with Seoul about defence costs.

He said he had not given any orders to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, but the Pentagon was looking at forces around the world.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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