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Thursday August 11th, 2022 10:34PM

Blinken: China military drills are 'significant escalation'

By The Associated Press
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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that China's military exercises aimed at Taiwan, including missiles fired into Japan's exclusive economic zone, represent a “significant escalation” and that he has urged Beijing to back down.

China launched the drills following a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan that infuriated Beijing, which claims the self-governed island as its own territory.

Blinken told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia, however, that Pelosi's visit was peaceful and did not represent a change in American policy toward Taiwan, accusing China of using it as a "pretext to increase provocative military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait."

He said the situation had led to a “vigorous communication” during East Asia Summit meetings in Phnom Penh in which both he and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took part along with the ASEAN nations, Russia and others.

“I reiterated the points that we made publicly as well as directly to Chinese counterparts in recent days, again, about the fact that they should not use the visit as a pretext for war, escalation, for provocative actions, that there is no possible justification for what they’ve done and urge them to cease these actions,” he said.

Blinken did not sit down one-on-one with Wang but said he had spoken with the Chinese foreign minister already about the possibility of a Pelosi visit to Taiwan before it had taken place during meetings in Bali, and had made the U.S. position clear.

China on Friday announced unspecified sanctions on Pelosi for her visit. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said she had disregarded China’s concerns and resolute opposition to her trip.

Pelosi received a euphoric welcome as the first U.S. House speaker, and highest ranking U.S. official, to visit Taiwan in more than 25 years.

China opposes any engagement by Taiwanese officials with foreign governments, and has accused the U.S. of breaking the status quo with the Pelosi visit. The U.S. insists there has been no change to its “one-China” position of recognizing the government in Beijing, while allowing for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei.

Despite the aggressive Chinese reaction to the visit, Blinken said the U.S. would also not change its “commitment to the security of our allies in the region,” and that the Defense Department had ordered the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier group “to remain on station in the general area to monitor the situation.”

“We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he said. “We'll continue to conduct standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait, consistent with our long-standing approach to working with allies and partners to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight.”

As the East Asia Summit opened, Wang patted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the shoulder as he entered the room and gave the already-seated Lavrov a quick wave before taking his own seat. Lavrov waved back in response.

Blinken, who entered the room last, did not even glance at Lavrov as he took his own seat about a half dozen chairs away, or at Wang who was seated farther down the same table as Lavrov.

Ahead of the Phnom Penh talks, the U.S. State Department indicated Blinken had no plans to meet one-on-one with either man during the course of the meetings.

Following the meetings, Lavrov told reporters there had been a lot of “fiery statements” about the aftermath of the Pelosi visit.

“There have been rather sharp statements from our Chinese partners, who we support," he told reporters. "And there have been responses from the U.S. and Japan that it’s not China’s business and that the declared policy of supporting the one-China principle doesn’t mean one has to ask Beijing for permission to visit Taiwan. Surely, it’s a weird logic.”

The talks came a day after WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison by Russia in a politically charged case amid antagonisms over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Blinken said the conviction and sentence “compounds the injustice that has been done to her.”

“It puts a spotlight on our very significant concern with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda using individuals as political pawns,” he said.

Blinken has suggested the possibility of a prisoner swap for Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan, but Lavrov told reporters that such a deal could only be decided upon by Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden.

“We’re ready to discuss this topic, but to discuss it within the channel that was agreed on by presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov said on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting.

On Thursday, China canceled a foreign ministers’ meeting with Japan to protest a statement from the Group of Seven industrialized nations that said there was no justification for Beijing's military exercises, which virtually encircle Taiwan.

“Japan, together with other member of the G-7 and the EU, made an irresponsible statement accusing China and confounding right and wrong,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing.

When Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa began to speak Friday at the East Asia Summit, both Lavrov and Wang walked out of the room, according to a diplomat in the room who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private session.

In the wake of the Chinese missile launches into Japan's economic zone, Blinken said the U.S. stands in “strong solidarity” with Japan following the “dangerous actions China has taken.”

___

Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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