Male [Maldives]: US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris on Wednesday launched a scathing attack on China in his address at the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) here, leading to a tense environment which saw a Chinese diplomat in the crowd rebutting his claims.
Harris severely criticised China on a number of issues including its treatment of Uighurs, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and its behaviour in the South China Sea during his speech. This resulted in the Chinese official, Wei Hongtian, interrupting the consequent question and answer session to voice his disagreement to strong statements of Harris, also a former commander of US Pacific Command.
"China's diplomacy seeks to force ASEAN members to define codes of conduct in the region dictated by Beijing and conforming to Chinese standards. You can see intimidation in China's militarisation of the South China Sea and defiance of international law. As Secretary Pompeo said -- China's bullying in the South China Sea reflects a broader choice for nations in the region. Coercion and control of freedom and the rule of law," Harris stated during his speech.
"We do not take sides in territorial disputes. What we do believe though is that the great body of water that is called the South China Sea is international water. That the military bases that China has created...(with) literally a great wall of sand in the middle of the South China Sea are all illegal," he said while responding to a question, before Wei's interjection.
The moderator tried to defuse the situation by letting China's Ambassador of Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs know that it wasn't the right forum for bilateral rebuttals, but Wei insisted on responding to the US Ambassador's claims.
"About the militarisation, freedom of navigation...in the South China Sea, China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) in the South China Sea and adjacent waters...," he said while strongly reiterating China's territorial claim.
The Chinese envoy said that countries enjoy the freedom of navigation and overflight in the region in accordance with international law.
"Everyone enjoys the freedom of navigation, nothing happened there," he said as the moderator again tried to stop him from putting any other point forward.
"Who is bullying who?" the envoy lastly questioned, before thanking the moderator for the time given to put forth his response.
Harris was seen shaking hands with Wei after he got off the stage.
Apart from his comments on the South China Sea, the US Ambassador also claimed that the "Chinese government doesn't keep its word."
"China is a great power, an economic powerhouse and a cultural centre of gravity. The US partners well with China on a number of important fronts including counter-piracy here in the Indian Ocean ... But the US and China fundamentally disagree on how to approach the current international order. The Chinese government doesn't keep its word, from its treaty with the British on Hong Kong, to its WTO commitments and human rights," Harris said.
"This is why we've made very clear in our Indo-Pacific vision that the US rejects foreign policy based on leverage and dominance and seeks instead ... relationships based on respect, equal footing and fair exchange. You can see that divergence in values and how China is treating Muslim Uighurs, its own citizens in Western China," he added.
"China's continuing interference with and escalatory behaviour towards Vietnam's long-standing oil and gas activities in Vietnam's EEZ is deeply concerning,"
He questioned China's commitments towards a treaty signed with ASEAN on maritime disputes and said, "You can see it in the predatory policies in China's One Belt, One Road initiative which ignores international norms on transparency and entices countries into a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to coercion and threatens their sovereignty."
However, the US diplomat stressed that despite the US' concerns, Washington does not seek to "contain China."
"Let me stress, that despite our concerns...we do not seek to contain China. We enjoy a productive, bilateral economic relationship with China as do many, if not most countries in the world. This is right and good," he said.
"We welcome China's participation in a rules-based international order and we remind Beijing frequently of the prosperity that that order has created for China, liberating hundreds of millions of people and lifting billions of people out of poverty," the US Ambassador to South Korea stated, wrapping up his address before the incident with the Chinese envoy.