WENCHANG, China: People watch a Long March-8 rocket, the latest China's Long March launch vehicle fleet, lifting off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province yesterday. - AFP

BEIJING: Beijing said yesterday it would take "legitimate and necessary" measures against the United States in response to Washington's latest visa restrictions on Chinese officials suspected of human rights abuses. The US has toughened entry rules for Chinese officials and students in recent months as part of its campaign against Beijing, which has in recent years become its main strategic adversary. The State Department has also cancelled visas for more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers suspected of espionage.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the latest restrictions were directed at Chinese officials believed responsible for "policies or actions aimed at repressing religious and spiritual practitioners, members of ethnic minority groups, dissidents" and other civil society targets. In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused the US of weaponising its visa policy and interfering in China's internal affairs. "China firmly opposes this and strongly condemns it," he told a regular press briefing yesterday.

Wang added that China would "continue to take legitimate and necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its own legitimate interests". China earlier this month said it would sanction US officials who "performed badly" over Hong Kong issues, in a tit-for-tat response against US restrictions that banned inbound travel from officials accused of involvement in Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. Washington has also banned inbound travel from Chinese officials allegedly involved in the mass internment of the country's Muslim Uighur minority and drastically restricted US entry for members of the Chinese Communist Party.

US warship sails
In another development, an American warship sailed through waters off the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Thursday, in the latest challenge to Beijing's sweeping territorial claims in the region. Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands," the US Seventh fleet said in a statement.

"This freedom of navigation operation… upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan," it added. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it. The region is believed to have valuable oil and gas deposits.

Further angering those countries, and the US, Beijing has moved aggressively to build reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes. The move came amid a rise in US-China tensions over the coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. Relations between both countries have been strained on multiple levels since Donald Trump took office in 2017. A trade war launched by Trump has infuriated Beijing, as did his authorization of a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province. - Agencies