The Trump Administration on Monday made a brazen announcement rejecting nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “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 defense 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.” Any move to harass fishing vessels in the area or interfere with hydrocarbon development will be considered unlawful, added Pompeo.
The South China Sea is a resource-rich area through which $5 trillion in goods are shipped each year. Overlapping areas of the sea are claimed by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China, which in recent years has built air strips, docks, artificial islands, and military facilities in the region, claims roughly 90% of the sea and its resources.
Monday’s announcement breaks from previous policy under which the US urged China and its neighbors to settle disputes through UN-backed negotiations and is no doubt intended to show voters that President Trump (unlike his opponent Joe Biden) is not afraid to stand up to China.
While the US technically remains neutral in regards to the South China Sea, its rejection of China’s claims puts the US firmly in support of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In addition, waters belonging to the Philippines are protected by a US-Philippine defense treaty in the event of an attack.
The US is not a member of the UN body that helps resolve maritime disputes, though it does maintain aircraft and warships in the area to promote freedom of navigation in the region.
It is unclear if the US announcement will have any real effect in the South China Sea, but it could put Beijing in an awkward position if the announcement attracts international support.
“Beijing wants to be a global leader, and you can’t be a global leader if everybody thinks that you’re violating international law and bullying your neighbors,” says Gregory Poling, a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
As expected, China blasted the US stance as “completely unjustified” and accused the Trump Administration of “stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”