The Chinese government’s expansive claims to own most of the South China Sea are illegal under international law, the Trump administration said Monday as it ramped up U.S. efforts to undermine Beijing’s increasingly militarized activities in the strategic waterway.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington is committed to standing beside allies across Asia to counter China, which has triggered regional tensions for more than a decade with assertions of sovereignty over most of the resource-rich South China Sea.
“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,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement referencing the body of water through which some $5 trillion in global trade also passes annually.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” he said. “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.”
China’s activities have included developing some 3,200 acres of disputed islands and then deploying advanced military weapons on them, including anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. The South China Sea contains vast commercial fishing resources and harbors large reserves of undersea oil and natural gas.
The Chinese Embassy issued a statement saying Mr. Pompeo’s statement distorted the facts and international law.
“The accusation is completely unjustified,” according to an embassy spokesman. “The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it.”
Previous U.S. administrations have expressed Washington’s commitment to neutrality in all South China Sea maritime disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Trump administration has issued its declaration as tensions remain high in the region. Two Navy aircraft carrier battle groups conducted round-the-clock air operations in the South China Sea in a show of strength and support for allies last week.
It is also a moment of tit-for-tat between Washington and Beijing on a range of fronts.
China announced Monday that it is imposing sanctions on three U.S. lawmakers and one ambassador in retaliation for similar action by the United States last week against Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses against Muslims in western China.
U.S. officials said Monday that the Trump administration’s policy toward the South China Sea is to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of transit and oppose any attempt by China to use coercion or force to settle disputes over the waterway.
“These shared interests have come under unprecedented threat from the People’s Republic of Chin,” Mr. Pompeo said.
“Today we are strengthening U.S. policy in a vital, contentious part of that region,” the secretary of state said, adding that the United States will “reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”
“Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with ‘might makes right,’” Mr. Pompeo said.
According to the State Department, China has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its control over the region. “Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its ‘Nine-Dashed Line’ claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009,” said Mr. Pompeo.
The latest policy was issued four years after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China’s claims to control 90% of the South China Sea through a vague, historically claimed nine-dashed line.
The 2016 international court ruling sided with the Philippine government against Beijing that determined China had no historical claims to control maritime territory under the nine-dash line.
Mr. Pompeo’s statement Monday asserted that the ruling is “final and legally binding on both parties.”
“Today we are aligning the U.S. position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the [South China Sea] with the tribunal’s decision,” he said.
Such alignment means the Trump administration is committed to the view that China cannot lawfully assert a maritime sovereignty claim and accompanying exclusive economic zone over Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands, because the tribunal found them to be within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
Trump’s harder posture
China seized a grounded Philippines warship at Mischief Reef in the Spratly in 2012, and the Obama administration took no action to defend a defense ally.
The Trump administration has taken a notably more aggressive posture. Mr. Pompeo announced in February 2019 that the United States considers the Spratlys covered by the 1951 U.S.-Philippines defense treaty.
The secretary of state’s statement Monday said “Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources.”
Additionally in line with the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, the United States publicly declared Monday that China has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal because both fall under Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
Based on the rejection of China’s claims at the Hague tribunal, Mr. Pompeo’s statement made clear that the U.S. also disputes any Chinese claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea from islands it is claiming in the Spratlys.
“As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia),” the statement said. “Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters — or to carry out such activities unilaterally — is unlawful.”
It also asserted that the U.S. position is that China has no lawful claims to the James Shoal, a submerged feature 50 miles from Malaysia and 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast.
Chinese state media has referred to the shoal as China’s southernmost territory.
“International law is clear: An underwater feature like James Shoal cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating maritime zones,” Mr. Pompeo’s statement said. It added that the underwater feature “is not and never was PRC territory, nor can Beijing assert any lawful maritime rights from it.”
The secretary of state noted that then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told a regional forum of Southeast Asian nations in 2010 that “‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.’”
“The PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century,” Mr. Pompeo said.
John Tkacik, a former State Department official, said the U.S. policy outlined Monday was likely triggered by intelligence indicating Chinese forces intend to partake in fresh aggression in the South China Sea.
The policy signals that the United States “positively and unequivocally rejects China’s unilateral and illegal seizures of other peoples’ property,” Mr. Tkacik said.
“For too long, China has demanded all nations accept that whatever territory, or seas, or airspace Beijing claims, no matter how far-fetched or ungrounded in fact, is part of the patrimony of ‘one China’ and thereby inviolate,” he added. “This new State Department announcement changes all that.”
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell said the new policy is dramatic shift from the past and “clear and unambiguous” American support to the Indo-Pacific region.
“This announcement is a victory for those who have long called for pushing back on the Chinese Communist Party’s expansionist program in the South China Sea,” Capt. Fanell said. “For a decade, the PRC used the nine-dash line as a cudgel to bully and cajole Southeast Asian nations into acquiescing to Beijing’s demands that other nations must acknowledge the PRC’s sovereignty over the South China Sea.”