Pompeo made the remarks after meeting his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Thursday in the Thai capital Bangkok for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where the two diplomats met for the first time this year amid increasing tensions between the China and the US.
China claims nearly the entire strategic South China Sea with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam pushing competing claims to parts of the maritime region. Tensions have escalated in the South China Sea over recent incidents between Chinese and Vietnamese and Philippine ships, according to Reuters. And Beijing has warned the United States and other non-Asian countries not to intensify disputes in the South China Sea.
Wang on Wednesday said that China opposes interference by the countries outside the region.
Pompeo on Thursday however said both Washington and Beijing wanted to improve ties that have soured on issues like mutual trade, US sanctions on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, Taiwan and the South China Sea waterway.
“We are working with them on many fronts,” Pompeo said.
“But we are also very candid about the places we are hoping China will behave in ways that they are not behaving today and we talked about each of those as well.”
Earlier on Thursday, Wang said he and the top US diplomat had discussed ways to promote China-US ties.
“There may be at various times issues and problems between China and the United States, but no matter how many problems, it is important for both sides to sit down and have face-to-face discussions,” Wang said after the meeting of about 30 minutes.
In a tweet on Thursday Pompeo said he had “an in-depth exchange of views” with the Chinese foreign minister — including on North Korea — adding “when it advances US interests, we are ready to cooperate with China.”
Pompeo also insisted that Washington was not asking Southeast Asian nations to “choose” between the US and China.
“Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero-sum exercise,” he said in short remarks at the opening of a meeting with the 10-member ASEAN states.
The resource-rich South China Sea has long been a source of tension between Beijing and Washington, which regularly dispatches its warships and warplanes to the waters as part of what it describes as “freedom of navigation” patrols.
The US has been taking sides with several of China’s neighboring countries competing sovereignty claims to the strategic waters.