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Pompeo Wraps Up Anti-China Tour in Asia10/30 06:28

   

   HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up a 
five-nation, anti-China tour of Asia in Vietnam on Friday with a call for 
regional unity to counter Beijing's growing assertiveness, as the fierce 
American presidential election race entered its final stretch.

   With just four days left in the campaign in which China has been a central 
theme, Pompeo visited Hanoi ostensibly to celebrate 25 years of U.S.-Vietnam 
relations. But, as he has at his previous stops in India, Sri Lanka, the 
Maldives and Indonesia, Pompeo's main aim was to shore up support for pushing 
back on China.

   "We have enormous respect for the Vietnamese people and your country's 
sovereignty," Pompeo told Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

   In brief comments heard by reporters, neither man mentioned China by name, 
but Pompeo's use of the word "sovereignty" has become code for referring to 
opposition to Chinese encroachment, particularly in Asia.

   "We look forward to continuing to work together to build on our relationship 
and to make the region --- throughout Southeast Asia, Asia and the Indo-Pacific 
--- safe and peaceful and prosperous," Pompeo said.

   Phuc said he seeks "sincere cooperation" between both sides in support of a 
peaceful region.

   The Trump administration has made confronting China, its handling of the 
coronavirus pandemic, human rights record and aggressiveness toward its smaller 
neighbors one of its main foreign policy priorities. Those issues, particularly 
the Chinese origin of the virus, have been highlighted by President Donald 
Trump as he seeks to beat back a stiff reelection challenge from former Vice 
President Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 polls.

   Trump has sought to paint Biden as weak on China and beholden to it, 
repeatedly raising questions about alleged connections between Biden's son, 
Hunter, and Chinese businesses.

   Amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Vietnam was a late addition to 
Pompeo's itinerary and has numerous fears about Chinese policies in the region. 
Those range from Beijing's territorial and maritime claims in the South China 
Sea to its development activities along the Mekong River, which runs through 
much of mainland Southeast Asia and is a regional lifeline.

   In a statement released ahead of Pompeo's arrival in Vietnam, the State 
Department attacked China for reneging on cooperation pledges with other Mekong 
countries and for aggressively pursuing suspect claims in the South China Sea.

   China's "malign and destabilizing actions in the Mekong region, including 
manipulation of Mekong River water flows, negatively affect millions of people 
who depend on the river for their livelihoods," it said.

   "The United States stands with our Indo-Pacific allies and partners in 
protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources in the South China Sea, 
consistent with their rights and obligations under international law," it said. 
It noted that earlier this year, Pompeo had rejected outright nearly all of 
Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, including those involving 
Vietnam.

   China's actions in the South China Sea, through which a third of global 
shipping passes, has drawn rebuke from the United States and become a 
flashpoint for a region in which Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam, the 
Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have rival claims.

   China has ignored an arbitration ruling won by the Philippines that 
invalidated most of Beijing's claims, and built military outposts on seven 
man-made islands.

   Pompeo arrived in Vietnam from Indonesia, where he praised Indonesian 
leadership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for pushing back on 
what he called China's "unlawful" South China Sea claims and denounced Beijing 
for its treatment of religious minorities, calling it "the gravest threat to 
the future of religious freedom."

   Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin defended Beijing's 
policies toward religious minorities and accused Pompeo of acting out of 
"ideological prejudice and selfish political interests."

   "We urge Pompeo to stop fabricating all kinds of lies about China and stop 
using the religious issue to interfere in China's internal affairs," Wang told 
reporters at a daily briefing on Friday.

   While China's constitution technically protects freedom of religion, the 
officially atheist Communist Party strictly limits observance, especially among 
young people and those worshiping outside party-sanctioned religious bodies.

   Pompeo had traveled to Indonesia from the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India on 
stops where he steadily ratcheted up the pressure on Beijing, which has 
rejected U.S. concerns and accused him and others in the Trump administration 
of fanning the flames of a new Cold War.

   In the Maldives, Pompeo announced the United States would for the first time 
open an embassy in the Indian Ocean archipelago, a move that reflects growing 
U.S. concern about increasing Chinese influence and what he he called "its 
lawless and threatening behavior" in the Indo-Pacific region.

   Just hours earlier in Sri Lanka, Pompeo had accusing China of being a 
"predator" in smaller countries by exploiting them with loans and development 
projects intended to benefit the Chinese more than the intended recipients.

   At his first stop of the tour in India, Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark 
Esper had stepped up the administration's anti-China message by playing on 
Indian suspicions about the Chinese to shore up a regional front against 
Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.

   Just hours before the meetings in New Delhi began, the Trump administration 
notified Congress of plans for a $2.37 billion sale of Harpoon missile systems 
to Taiwan --- the second major arms sale in two weeks to the democratic island 
that Beijing regards as a renegade province. China angrily reacted by 
announcing sanctions on U.S. defense contractors.

 
 
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