WASHINGTON—The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia warned on Tuesday that Washington could respond with sanctions against Chinese officials and enterprises involved in coercion in the South China Sea after the United States announced a tougher stance to Beijings claims there.
“Nothing is off the table … there is room for that. This is a language the Chinese understand—demonstrative and tangible action,” David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told a Washington think-tank when asked if sanctions were a possible U.S. response to Chinese actions.
Stilwell spoke a day after the United States rejected Chinas claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful,” a stance denounced by Beijing.
The United States has long opposed Chinas expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and has sent warships regularly through the strategic waterway, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year, to demonstrate freedom of navigation. But Mondays announcement was the first time it declared Chinese claims illegal.
China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim parts of it. Beijing has built bases on atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday the U.S. threat of sanctions was its latest attempt to stir up trouble and destabilize the region.
“The U.S. arbitrarily talks about sanctions … this is very pathetic,” she told reporters during a daily briefing in Beijing. “We are not afraid of sanctions.”
Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washingtons Center for Strategic and International Studies, said declaring Chinas claims illegal opened the way for a tougher U.S. response, such as through sanctions, and could also lead to more U.S. naval presence operations.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman earlier condemned the tougher U.S. stand on Chinas claim, saying it “destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act.”
A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a freedom of navigation operation on Tuesday near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. military said.