Pentagon chief expresses concern to Chinese counterpart about Beijing's activity in South China Sea

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listens during a news conference at the U.S. Department of State following the 30th AUSMIN in Washington, D.C. July 28, 2020. Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed concerns about Beijing’s “destabilizing” activity near Taiwan and the South China Sea in a call with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, the Pentagon said on Thursday, the first time the two are believed to have spoken since March.

The call came as U.S.-China ties have rapidly deteriorated this year over a range of issues, including Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, telecommunications equipment maker Huawei [HWT.UL], China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its clamp-down on Hong Kong.

“Secretary Esper also communicated the importance that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) abide by international laws, rules and norms and meet its international commitments,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters, adding that the call lasted for an hour and a half.

A separate Pentagon statement said both sides agreed on “developing the systems necessary for crisis communications and risk reduction.”

Esper has said previously that he hopes to visit China by the end of the year to improve “crisis-communications” channels and address other areas of mutual interest.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and has sent warships regularly through the strategic waterway.

“Wei ... urged the U.S. side to stop erroneous words and deeds, improve the management and control of maritime risks, avoid taking dangerous moves that may escalate the situation, and safeguard regional peace and stability,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

China on Thursday threatened to take countermeasures over a trip to Taiwan by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, as the Chinese-claimed island country geared up for its highest-level U.S. official visit in four decades.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Hawaii but a senior U.S. official said that China was not forthcoming in those talks.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chris Reese, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler