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However, a senior State Department diplomat has issued an ominous warning to Beijing against pressing its claim to a key strategic island known as Scarborough Shoal – and added: “Nothing is off the table”. Meanwhile Britain and Japan are gearing up to join the US in key military exercises which are likely to further irritate China.

The US statement ignores the history and objective facts of the South China Sea issue

Zhao Lijian

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was speaking after Mr Pompeo described China’s operations in the South China Sea, where it has fortified numerous uninhabited islands, as “completely unlawful”, adding: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.

Mr Lijian responded by accusing the US of “sailing through the world like a bully”.

He added: “The US statement ignores the history and objective facts of the South China Sea issue, violates the US government’s open commitment to the South China sea’s sovereignty issue, and violates and distorts international law.

“It intentionally stirs up controversy over maritime sovereignty claims, destroys regional peace and stability, and is an irresponsible act.”

He added: “The US will never succeed in its efforts at smearing.

“We express strong dissatisfaction towards the US’s mistakes.

“We urge the US to stop stirring trouble in regards to the South China Sea issue and to not keep going further down the wrong track.”

A spokesman for China’s Washington embassy followed up Mr Lijian’s criticism by accusing the US of “flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation” with its “completely unjustified” attack.

China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich sea – but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of it.

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Washington regularly sends warships regularly through the strategic waterway, through which about £2.4trillion of trade passes annually, to demonstrate freedom of navigation.

However, Mr Pompeo’s statement was the first time the US has characterised China’s behaviour as illegal.

Speaking today, David Stilwell, who as assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is Washington’s top diplomat in the region, said Washington could respond with sanctions against Chinese officials and enterprises involved in what he termed coercion in the South China Sea.

Outlining the diplomatic tools at his disposal, he explained: “Nothing is off the table – there is room for that.

“This is a language the Chinese understand – demonstrative and tangible action.”

A US Navy destroyer carried out a freedom of navigation operation on Tuesday near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the military said.

Mr Stilwell added: “We are no longer going to say we are neutral on these maritime issues.

“When a Chinese drilling rig plants itself in Vietnamese or Malaysian waters, we’re going to be able to make a positive statement.

Mr Stilwell had a particular warning over the Scarborough Shoal, a strategic outcrop located 124 miles from the Philippines which is claimed by both Beijing and Manila, and which China seized in 2012.

He said: “Any move by China to physically occupy, reclaim or militarise Scarborough Shoal would be a dangerous move and would have lasting and severe consequences for China’s relationship with the United States, as well as the entire region.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the UK’s new aircraft carrier, will take part in exercises in the region with the US and Japan next year, The Times today reported.

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