David Stilwell, Assistant Secretary, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, State Department, on Wednesday told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Beijing's maritime militia has been trying to "intimidate Vietnam and other ASEAN countries away from developing oil and gas resources in the South China Sea".
"While the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy has made significant progress to reinforce and advance the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region, we are increasingly concerned that some are actively seeking to challenge this order. We are committed to working with any country that plays by the rules, but we will also stand up to any country that uses predatory practices to undermine them," he said.
Stilwell also said that Washington is "especially concerned by Beijing's use of market-distorting economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and intimidation to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda".
"Beijing's pursuit of a repressive alternative vision for the Indo-Pacific seeks to reorder the region in its favour and has put China in a position of strategic competition with all who seek to preserve a free and open order of sovereign, diverse nations," he told the panel.
On the South China Sea, where Beijing has been openly flexing its muscle, he said: "Since early July, Chinese vessels have conducted maritime surveys near Vanguard Bank with armed Coast Guard escorts and maritime militia in order to intimidate Vietnam and other ASEAN states away from developing oil and gas resources in the South China Sea.
"Through repeated illegal actions and militarization of disputed features, Beijing has and continues to take actions to prevent ASEAN members from accessing over $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves."
Slamming China's economic policies as "opaque", Stilweel said that economically, the Chinese government "uses an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including market access restrictions; opaque, discriminatory regulatory processes; currency manipulation; forced technology transfer; intellectual property theft; and creation of non-market excess industrial capacity to build Beijing's manufacturing base at the expense of its competitors".
Specifically criticising Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt Road Initiative, he said: "Through initiatives such as One Belt One Road, Beijing has flooded much of the developing world with hundreds of billions of dollars in opaque infrastructure loans, leading to problems such as unsustainable debt burdens and environmental destruction and often giving Beijing undue leverage over countries' sovereign political decisions."
While the US welcomes fair and open economic competition with China, and of Beijing's responsible and transparent economic engagement with other countries, "but where China acts in a manner that undermines these principles, we are compelled to respond".
Stilwell said the US has "repeatedly expressed concern over China's actions to bully Taiwan through economic coercion, squeezing Taiwan's international space, and poaching diplomatic partners".
He slammed Beijing's "military modernization", which he said "continues at a breakneck pace". "Its exercises in the region are increasingly complex and clearly intended not only to deter US efforts to sustain our forward presence in the region, but to signal to other countries, and to the authorities on Taiwan, that they are under direct threat."
"Beijing's conduct is at odds with its public narrative of a 'peaceful rise'."
He said the US "seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China grounded in fairness and respect for sovereignty. The Trump Administration has emphasized the imperative to compete with China. This does not mean we seek conflict, nor does it preclude cooperation when our interests align.
"Yet we will not shy away from exposing and contesting actions that undermine the free and open international order that has fostered peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for decades."
( With inputs from IANS )