Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The Trump administration on Wednesday blacklisted 24 Chinese companies and imposed visa restrictions on dozens of Chinese citizens, accusing them of aiding the Chinese government's "unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea."
The South China Sea has continued to be a point of contention between the United States, its Asian allies and Beijing, which is exerting maritime claims in the region. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei have all pushed back on China's claims.
The Commerce Department said China has been rapidly building artificial islands since 2013, allowing the Communist Chinese Party to militarize them as outposts.
"The United States, China's neighbors, and the international community have rebuked the CCP's sovereignty claims to the South China Sea and have condemned the building of artificial islands for the Chinese military," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. "The entities designated today have played a significant role in China's provocative construction of these artificial islands and must be held accountable."
The statement said the Communist Chinese Party so far has dredged and constructed more than 3,000 acres across seven features in the South China Sea, which include air defense and anti-ship missile weapons.
The firms on the list mostly include dredging, shipbuilding, infrastructure and technology companies, including the large China Communications Construction Company. The company is one of the top firms involved in China's global infrastructure investment program called the Belt and Road Initiative.
The move comes amid fraying relations between Bejing and Washington, D.C. and the Trump administration has penalized China and its companies over human rights abuses committed against its Muslim minority citizens in Xinjiang province, human rights abuses committed against Hong Kong protesters and over the expansion of its surveillance capabilities.
However, this is the first time the Trump administration has targeted the People's Republic of China over its claims to the South China sea and comes after the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month strengthened the State Department's policy rejecting the Asian country's activities in the disputed region.
"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 told reporters on July 13.
The State Department on Wednesday also imposed visa restrictions on dozens of Chinese nationals it accuses of being responsible for or complicit in "either the large-scale reclamation, construction or militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea or the PRC's use of coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources," Pompeo said in a statement.
Pompeo accused China of destabilizing the region, trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbors and causing environmental devastation.
In the statement, he warned the People's Republic of China against using state-owned enterprises "as weapons to impose an expansionist agenda."
"The United States will act until we see Beijing discontinue its coercive behavior in the South China Sea, and we will continue to stand with allies and partners in resisting this destabilizing activity," he said.