US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. speak to reporters during the former’s visit to Manila on March 1, 2019. (Melo M. Acuña)


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a swipe at China on Thursday, accusing it of taking advantage of the pandemic to advance its claims on the disputed South China Sea.

“Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction, from China’s new unilateral announcement of administrative districts over disputed islands and maritime areas in the South China Sea,” Pompeo said at the sidelines of a meeting with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

He also mentioned China’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel earlier in the month, its research stations on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, as well as the deployment of a maritime militia around the Spratly Islands and a flotilla that included an energy survey vessel to intimidate other claimants from engaging in offshore hydrocarbon development.

“It is important to highlight how the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the world’s focus on the Covid-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior,” he said.

In a statement, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said Asean ministers “noted concerns expressed over recent developments in the South China Sea that increased tensions at a time when all efforts and resources are focused on battling the pandemic.”

Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said that “due to the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, all parties must work together to maintain peace, security and stability in the South China sea and increase efforts to build, maintain and enhance mutual trust and confidence.”

‘Shut down wet markets’

Pompeo also urged Asean countries to shut down markets selling exotic animals for food.

“Given the strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases, the United States has called on the People’s Republic of China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets and all markets that sell illegal wildlife. I call on Asean governments to do the same,” he said.

Pompeo said the US had released $35.3 million in emergency health funding to help Asean countries fight the virus. (Melo M. Acuña)