US Vice President Kamala Harris said that Beijing's coercive actions "continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten sovereignty of nations" during a major foreign policy speech in Singapore on Tuesday.
The address came after Harris met with the country's prime minister and president. Her office released a statement announcing several agreements to tackle a series of challenges ranging from cyberthreats to climate change.
Harris is on a seven-day tour of Southeast Asia. She is due to travel to Vietnam later on Tuesday.
What did Harris say?
Harris began by acknowledging the situation in Afghanistan, saying President Joe Biden had made a "courageous" and "right" decision to withdraw troops from the country.
She stressed it was important to advance US interests in other regions, meaning Asia, amid global developments.
Harris also criticized China's maritime activities, and said it was not in the US interest to have a situation where countries were pressured to choose sides.
"We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea," she said.
She added that Southeast Asian partners were a top priority for the US.
"The US will fortify commitment to key partners," Harris said.
Both Singapore and Vietnam share US concerns about Chinese incursions in the South China Sea.
Harris mentioned the region was important to US security and trade since millions of American jobs were also at stake. She added that the US saw $2 trillion of two-way trade pass through the shipping passage in 2019.
She also said that the history of the 21st century would be centered in the region, making it critically important to US security.
Earlier, Harris delivered the same message to sailors aboard a US combat ship at Singapore's Changi naval base, thanking them for their work in defending the region.
How did China respond?
The spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, rejected the vice president's remarks and instead accused the US of using the rhetoric of a rules-based global order as a cover for its "bullying, hegemonic behavior."
"The current events in Afghanistan clearly tell us what the rules and order the US speaks of are," he told a regular press briefing.
"The US can wantonly conduct military intervention in a sovereign country and does not need to be responsible for the suffering of the people in that country," Wang said.
"In order to defend 'America first', the US can arbitrarily smear, suppress, coerce and bully other countries without paying any price," he added. "This is the order the US wants ... but who will believe them now?"
The Biden administration has sought to ramp up its focus on Asia. Earlier in the year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman both paid visits to the region.
President Biden has labeled China as one of America's greatest adversaries. He also emphasized the challenge China poses to the West during a G7 summit in June, as well as at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year.
The US donation of 23 million COVID vaccines to Asia has been well-received in the region.
ab, rm/nm (Reuters, AP, AFP)