A senior US official on Tuesday likened China's state enterprises to Britain's colonizing East India Company as Washington takes a tougher stance against Beijing in the dispute-rife South China Sea. A day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branded most of Beijing's claims in the sea illegal, his top aide for East Asia denounced a proliferation of rigs, survey ships and fishing boats sent by Chinese state-run companies. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell said that oil major CNOOC and other firms were serving as "battering rams" to intimidate other nations. "In all our societies, citizens deserve to know the differences between commercial enterprises and instruments of foreign state power," Stilwell said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "These state enterprises are modern-day equivalents of the East India Company," he said. The British East India Company seized control of most of the Indian subcontinent in the guise of trading in tea, cotton, spices and other goods before Britain formally took charge in the mid-19th century. The reference is especially loaded due to the East India Company's role in smuggling opium into China, culminating in Britain's 1843 colonization of Hong Kong -- the start of what Beijing calls a century of humiliation. China has recently triggered international outrage by clamping down on freedoms promised to Hong Kong before Britain handed back the financial hub in 1997. In the latest rift between the United States and China, Pompeo on Monday sided with the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations in rejecting China's vast claims in the South China Sea. The United States had previously said that China's claims were unlawful but had taken no explicit position on individual disputes in the resource-rich and strategic sea. Stilwell renewed US concerns on China's long-running talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a South China Sea code of conduct, whose target date of next year has been pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. "Beijing may have backed off its arbitrary 2021 deadline for concluding the talks, but its hegemonic goals remain," Stilwell said. While the United States has no claims in the sea, he warned that US interests were "clearly at stake" in the code of conduct. "A code of conduct that in any way legitimates Beijing's reclamation, militarization or unlawful maritime claims would be severely damaging, and unacceptable for many nations," he said.