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US accuses China of 'buying its way out' of sea row

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, speaks during a joint press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Sydney, Monday, June 5, 2017. In their first joint appearance abroad, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Tillerson pledged unity with longtime ally Australia in fighting Islamic extremists who seek to intimidate the West. AP/Rick Rycroft

MANILA, Philippines — The United States accused China of using its economic power to evade issues such as the dispute over the South China Sea and the tension in the Korean Peninsula.

The US and Australia reiterated its opposition against China's construction of artificial islands and militarization of features in the Spratly Islands, which are similarly claimed by the Philippines, a longstanding US ally.

"We desire productive relationships, but we cannot allow China to use its economic power to buy its way out of other problems, whether its militarizing islands in the South China Sea or failing to put appropriate pressure on North Korea," US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Sydney.

The 2016 award issued by an international arbitral tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the useful basis to peacefully resolve the sea dispute, the two officials said.

The statement, among the strongest yet under new US President Donald Trump, was issued after the annual Australia-US Ministerial consultations in Sydney.

RELATED: Challenging China, US launches first South China Sea operation under Trump

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It also came came weeks after Beijing's "Belt and Road Initiative" that aims to bridge what it perceives as an "infrastructure gap" in Asia.

The Philippines' infrastructure projects under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has warmed up with China by shelving the arbitral ruling that ruled in his country's favor, are poised to be among the beneficiaries of the China-led financing spree.

Tillerson and Bishop, meanwhile, also emphasized the importance of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight and adhering to rules-based order, particularly in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis shared the same sentiments during their defense ministerial talks in Singapore at the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

"They expressed strong opposition to the use of coercion to unilaterally alter the status quo in the South China Sea, and their opposition to the use of disputed features for military purposes," the Australian, US and Japanese defense ministers said in a joint statement issued on June 3.

The three defense ministers urged all South China Sea claimants to exercise self-restraint, take steps to ease tensions, stop land reclamation activities, demilitarize disputed features and refrain from provocative tensions that ay escalate tensions.

They also called on all concerned governments to clarify maritime claims as reflected in the UNCLOS.

The UN-backed tribunal ruled that China violated its commitment under the UNCLOS upon building artificial islands in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Beijing refused to honor the landmark ruling while the Philippines, under the Duterte administration, opted to set the award aside.

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