July 13 (UPI) -- The United States on Monday rejected most of Beijing's maritime claims to the South China Sea, declaring a formal challenge to China's control over the waters.
"We are making clear: Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them," Pompeo said.
China holds competing claims over much of the area alongside Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.
In his statement on Monday, Pompeo cited a 2016 ruling by the United Nations declaring that China had no grounds for the so-called Nine-Dash-Line maps that depict China's claim to the area.
Pompeo said the United States would reject China's claim to James Shoal, a small submerged bank off the coast of Malaysia, and any waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands in the Spratly Islands, an archipelago between Vietnam and the Philippines.
The United States' top diplomat has previously criticized Beijing over its behavior in the waterway, accusing it of illegally building islands in the South China Sea that prevent neighboring nations from energy development.
The decision marks a departure of the United States' usual policy of avoiding judgments on maritime disputes in the area, where it holds no claims.
China early Tuesday rejected Pompeo's statement out of hand calling his accusations "unreasonable" and the United States "distractors, saboteurs and disruptors of regional peace and stability."
In a statement, the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the United States said China maintains the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea, urging the United States to stop interfering in its internal business.
"The United States is not a party to the dispute in the South China Sea but has frequently intervened in the South China Sea issue under the guise of maintaining stability in the South China Sea, showing off force, showing tension and instigating confrontation in the region," the statement said.
Pompeo's statement also comes amid increased tension between the two countries as they have traded sanctions over human rights abuses by the Chinese government against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Last week, both countries held naval military exercises in the area. The U.S. moved two aircraft carrier strike groups headed by the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz into the region while the Chinese Navy conducted military drills around the Parcel Islands.