The United States has rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, drawing an angry response from Beijing, which claimed 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 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 inflaming the situation.
“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 – of which the US is now the world’s worst-affected country – and over China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
China stakes its claim to the South China Sea on the basis of its so-called “nine-dash line” under which virtually the whole area would belong to China. Countries around the sea including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts of the area, as does Taiwan.
Previously, US policy had been to urge the dispute to be resolved peacefully through UN-backed arbitration, but the statement suggests a hardening of the US 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 continue to 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 State Department said in a fact sheet that accompanied Pompeo’s statement.
The announcement was released a day after the fourth anniversary of a binding decision by an arbitration panel in favour of the Philippines that rejected China’s maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighbouring reefs and shoals.
China has refused to recognise that decision, dismissed it as a “sham”, and refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings.
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 to be 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 Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said it had no immediate comment to make on the US statement.
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 stance.
“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 joint 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”.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea under its self-proclaimed nine-dash line, which gives it about nine tenths of the 3.5 million square kilometre sea.
Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately five trillion dollars in goods are shipped every year.__Al Jazeera