Ties between the US and China are set to further deteriorate over the South China Sea as the Trump administration is set to outrightly reject almost all of Chinese maritime claims in the contentious waterbody.
The Trump government presented the decision as an endeavour to restrain China’s increasing belligerence in the region with a commitment to recognising international law. This move in the South China Sea will further enrage the Chinese, who are already countering against various US sanctions and other penalties.
Previously, US policy had been to insist that maritime spats between China and its smaller neighbours be settled peacefully through UN-backed arbitration.
But in a statement released on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington now regards virtually all Chinese maritime claims outside its internationally recognised waters to be illegitimate.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo 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. 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.”
Although the US will continue to remain impartial in territorial conflicts, the announcement means Washington is now directly supporting Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which oppose Chinese declarations of sovereignty over maritime areas surrounding disputed 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 the 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 discarded Chinese maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighbouring reefs and shoals.
China has declined to recognise that ruling, rejected it as a “sham” and withdrew from the arbitration proceedings. It has continued to oppose the decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in recent years.
However, as a result, the administration 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.
In addition to reemphasising support for that decision, Pompeo said China cannot legitimately 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, Washington said it would regard any Chinese intimidation of fishing vessels or oil exploration in those areas as unlawful.