Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of "problematic behavior," from China during his visit to the Polynesian island of Tonga on Wednesday.
"What I think one of the things that we've seen is that as China's engagement in the region has grown, there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behavior," Blinken said, pointing to concerns over China's "unlawful maritime claims," "predatory" economic activity and investments that "promote corruption."
The comment follows Blinken's high-stakes trip to China last month, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping amid rising tensions between the countries. The trip to Tonga is Blinken's third visit to the Asia-Pacific region over the past two months, having also visited Indonesia.
The trip comes as part of the White House's efforts to push back on China's growing influence in the Pacific islands region and increase the U.S. presence. In a notice sent to Congress earlier this month, the State Department said it is planning a sharp increase in diplomatic personnel and spending for new U.S. embassies in the Pacific islands.
Meeting with Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi ‘Ofakivahafolau Sovaleni on Wednesday, Blinken dedicated a new U.S. embassy in Tonga that opened two months ago.
"We acknowledged a changing global landscape, the impacts of conflict and the strategic importance of the Pacific Island region," Sovaleni said.
He also told reporters that Tonga's growing partnership with the U.S. is rooted in a "shared respect for democracy, the rule of law, and the rights of freedom of others." Solvaleni said he and Blinken discussed the focuses of the partnership, including the climate crisis, education and defense.
When asked about Tonga's debt to China, Sovaleni said the country has officially started to pay off the debt and does not "have any problems or concerns," about it.
"When we talk about 'free and open,' we mean a region where all countries are free to choose their own path and their own partners; where problems are dealt with openly; where rules are reached transparency and applied fairly; where goods, where ideas, where people can move freely and lawfully," Blinken said.
The secretary of State will next head to New Zealand to meet with officials and watch the Women's World Cup soccer match between the U.S. and Netherlands. He will then visit Brisbane, Australia, to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Australian counterparts.
The Associated Press contributed.