US rejects China claims in South China Sea, drawing Beijing’s ire

The United States has rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, drawing an angry response from Beijing, which said Washington was trying to inflame tensions in the disputed waters.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday there was no legal basis for China’s claims on the Sea and accused Beijing of using intimidatory tactics against other claimant states.

“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 in a statement.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”

In response, the Chinese embassy in the US described the announcement as “completely unjustified” and accused Washington of stoking frictions.

“Under the pretext of preserving stability, (the US) is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”

The relationship between the US and China has become increasingly tense in recent months over the coronavirus pandemic – the US is now the world’s worst-affected country – and over China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. 

China claims almost all of the South China Sea under its self-proclaimed “nine-dash line”, which would give it about nine-tenths of the 3.5-million square kilometre sea.

Five other governments claim all or part of the sea – the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan – through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.

UN-backed arbitration

Previously, US policy had been to urge a peaceful resolution to the dispute through UN-backed arbitration, but the statement suggests a hardening of Washington’s position.

“America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region,” Pompeo said.

Although the US will remain neutral in territorial disputes, the announcement suggests the Trump administration is in effect siding with the littoral states, all of which oppose Chinese assertions of sovereignty over maritime areas surrounding contested islands, reefs and shoals.

“There are clear cases where [China] is claiming sovereignty over areas that no country can lawfully claim,” the US Department of State said in a fact sheet that accompanied Pompeo’s statement.

The announcement came a day after the fourth anniversary of a ruling by the arbitration panel  that – under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – invalidated most of China’s claims for maritime rights in the South China Sea.

China has refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings or to recognise the decision, dismissing it as a “sham”.

Beijing has sought to shore up its claim to the Sea by building military bases on coral atolls, and has continued to defy the arbitration panel’s decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into regular disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

While the US has no claims itself to the waters, it has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.

Words vs action

In addition to reiterating support for the arbitration panel’s decision, Pompeo said China has no valid maritime claims to the fish- and potentially energy-rich Scarborough Reef, Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal.

The US has repeatedly said areas regarded as part of the Philippines are covered by a US-Philippines mutual defence treaty in the event of an attack on them.

He also said China cannot legally claim the James Shoal near Malaysia, waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, the Luconia Shoals near Brunei and Natuna Besar off Indonesia. As such, Pompeo said the US would regard any Chinese harassment of fishing vessels or oil exploration in those areas as unlawful.

Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque said claims in the region should be resolved according to the Convention. “Our position here is we will pursue our national interest and resolving the South China Sea will have to be in accordance with the law,” he said.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry’s welcomed the US statement and called for Taiwan’s inclusion in a multilateral dispute mechanism. “Our country opposes any attempt by a claimant state to use intimidation, coercion, or force to resolve disputes in the South China Sea,” spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no immediate comment to make on the US statement.

In Beijing, Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, called Pompeo’s statement “irresponsible”.

“It frequently dispatched large-scale advanced warships and military aircraft to the South China Sea that militarised the region and promoted power logic and hegemony. The US is the destructor and troublemaker to peace and stability in the region,” he told reporters.

Regional analysts say it is crucial to see whether other countries follow the US stance and what Washington will do to support its more assertive position.

“This is basically the first time we have called it illegitimate,” Chris Johnson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told Reuters news agency. “It’s fine to put out a statement, but what are you going to do about it?”

Last week, China angrily complained about the US flexing its military muscle in the disputed sea by conducting exercises with two US aircraft carrier groups.

The US Navy said the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, along with their accompanying vessels and aircraft, conducted exercises “designed to maximize air defence capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations”.

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