The US State Department has expressed concern about reports of alleged Chinese obstruction of oil and gas activities in the South China Sea, including Vietnam’s exploration and production efforts.

“China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threatens regional energy security and undermines the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market,” a State Department statement said on Saturday.

“The United States firmly opposes coercion and intimidation by any claimant to assert its territorial or maritime claims,” the statement further underlined, adding: “China should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”

The development came after Vietnam accused a Chinese oil survey vessel and its escorts on Friday of violating its sovereignty, further demanding from Beijing to remove the ships from Vietnamese waters.

This is while Vietnam and China have long been involved in a dispute over the potentially energy-rich stretch of waters in the South China Sea.

The US State Department further pointed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks earlier in the year when he accused China of “blocking development in the South China Sea through coercive means,” and alleged that Beijing “prevents ASEAN members from accessing more than $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves.”

The statement was issued after two US-based think tanks reported on Wednesday that Chinese and Vietnamese vessels had engaged in a standoff lasting several weeks near an oil block in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

However, neither Beijing nor Hanoi have directly confirmed or denied such reports.

The US State Department also alleged that China’s growing pressure on ASEAN countries to accept provisions that seek to restrict their right to partner with third party companies or countries further reflect its objective to assert control over oil and gas resources in the South China Sea.

“China’s reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea…including the use of maritime militia to intimidate, coerce, and threaten other nations, undermine the peace and security of the region,” it claimed.

Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Ministry emphasized that Beijing and Washington should avoid falling into traps of “conflict and confrontation” while engaged in what it described as a wide-ranging area of cooperation and shared interests.

“The two countries have highly integrated interests and extensive cooperation areas, and they should avoid falling into the so-called traps of conflict and confrontation, but should realize mutual promotion and common development,” Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on July 1.

Geng also pointed to a draft open letter addressed to US President Donald Trump and the US Congress by some 80 Asian specialists, including former US diplomats and military officers, saying Beijing acknowledged the viewpoints and voices expressed in the letter. The letter urged Trump to reconsider policies that “treat China as an enemy.”

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