Pentagon chief expresses concern to his Chinese counterpart over Beijing’s activity in the South China Sea

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FILE PHOTO: US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listens during a press conference at the US State Department following the 30th AUSMIN in Washington, DC on July 28, 2020. Brendan Smialowski / Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has expressed concern over Beijing’s “destabilizing” activity near Taiwan and the South China Sea during an appeal with China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, the Pentagon said Thursday, the first time the two have spoken since March.

The call came as US-China relations deteriorated rapidly this year over a range of issues, including the handling of the coronavirus by Beijing, telecommunications equipment maker Huawei. [HWT.UL], China’s land claims in the South China Sea and its crackdown in Hong Kong.

“Secretary Esper also spoke of the importance for the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to abide by international laws, rules and standards and to meet its international commitments,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said, to reporters, adding that the call lasted an hour and a half.

A separate Pentagon statement said the two sides agreed to “develop the systems necessary for crisis communication and risk reduction.”

Esper previously said he hoped to visit China by the end of the year to improve “crisis communication” channels and address other areas of mutual interest.

The United States has long opposed China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea and has routinely sent warships to the Strategic Waterway.

“Wei … urged the US side to put an end to the wrong words and actions, to improve the management and control of maritime risks, to avoid taking dangerous measures that could worsen the situation and to safeguard regional peace and stability “Said the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

China on Thursday threatened to take countermeasures during a trip to Taiwan by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, as the island nation claimed by China prepared for its official US visit from above level for four decades.

In June, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Hawaii, but a senior US official said China was not participating in the talks.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Edited by Chris Reese, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler

Our standards:Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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