U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reverted on Thursday to criticism of China’s actions in Asia, speaking out at a regional forum against Chinese “coercion” in disputes over the South China Sea and dam-building on the Mekong River.
The comments highlighted a continuing divide with Beijing at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations with world powers, even as Pompeo met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi met face-to-face for the first time this year earlier in the day.
Pompeo said both countries want to improve U.S.-Chinese ties that have soured on issues ranging from a trade war to U.S. sanctions on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to Taiwan and the busy South China Sea waterway.
“We are working with them on many fronts,” Pompeo said of Beijing. “But we are also very candid about the places we are hoping China will behave in ways that they are not behaving today and we talked about each of those as well.”
Earlier, Wang had struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he and Pompeo had discussed ways to promote China-U.S. ties.
“There may be at various times issues and problems between China and the United States, but no matter how many problems, it is important for both sides to sit down and have face-to-face discussions,” Wang said after the meeting of roughly 30 minutes.
U.S. and Chinese negotiators ended a brief round of trade talks in Shanghai on Wednesday with little sign of progress and agreed to meet again in September, prolonging an uneasy truce in a year-long trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
In Bangkok, Pompeo said he had urged regional allies to speak out against Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and earlier said Chinese dam-building upstream on the Mekong River had caused decade-low levels on the vital waterway.
Both officials are in the Thai capital of Bangkok for security meetings with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping, on the front line of rivalry between the United States and an increasingly muscular China.
Immediately after his meeting with Wang, Pompeo had also painted a rosier picture, saying on Twitter that he had an in-depth exchange of views with the Chinese official on U.S.-China relations, North Korea and other topics.
“When it advances U.S. interests, we are ready to cooperate with China,” he said.
But in an appearance later in the day with his Thai counterpart, he returned to U.S. talking points on issues such as the plight of Rohingya refugees who have fled ASEAN member state Myanmar and rising tension with Iran after attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States blames the tanker attacks on Iran, but Tehran denies the charge.
Pompeo said he had urged regional allies “to maintain the sanctions that spur diplomacy with North Korea, to speak out against Chinese coercion in the South China Sea, to advocate for the voluntary safe and dignified return of the Rohingya to their homeland, and to confront Iranian aggression.”
He added that Washington was “ready to go” with restarting denuclearization talks after Pyongyang test-launched a missile the previous day, and regretted that he was unable to meet with North Korean representatives at the Bangkok.
Wang earlier said China was willing to create favorable conditions to help restart talks with North Korea.
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)