Beijing’s South China Sea claims ‘unlawful, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says
The Trump Administration has stepped up its confrontation with China over the South China Sea by formally declaring most of its disputed territorial claims in the region to be illegal.
The move abandons the official US position of neutrality and in effect aligns Washington with those South-East Asian nations – Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – who are contesting China’s territorial claims in the region.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “Today we are strengthening US policy … 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.
“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.”
The US move will anger Beijing and comes at a time of rising tensions between the two strategic rivals. Earlier this month the US sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea to participate in large military exercises in a show of force.
Washington’s decision may also place pressure on Australia to take a harder line on China’s actions in the South China Sea. Australia has long declined to take sides on the competing territorial claims and has called for the dispute to be resolved in accordance with international law.
Trump administration sources said the US move was aimed at trying to deter Beijing from its increasingly assertive stance in the region.
China has militarised a series of islands, shoals and features in the South China Sea outside of its territorial waters, claiming that they belong to China.
In 2016 a ruling by an international tribunal found no legal basis for China’s claims to territorial rights to land features in the South China Sea.
Previously the US has called for the disputes to be resolved through UN-backed arbitration but Mr Pompeo said the US was now formally aligning itself with the tribunal’s 2016 findings.
“In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes,” Mr Pompeo said.
‘These shared interests have come under unprecedented threat from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
‘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.
The US move comes at a time when the Trump administration is ramping up its attacks on Beijing on a range of fronts ahead of the November presidential election.
Donald Trump has accused China of failing to alert the US and the world to the dangers of the coronavirus, saying the issue has “seriously damaged” relations between the two countries.
Mr Trump said that in the current environment he wasn’t even thinking about ‘phase two’ of the trade agreement between the two economic superpowers which was aimed at tackling Beijing’s unfair trading practices.
The president has indicated he will make China’s actions on the coronavirus and on trade a major theme of his re-election campaign and has accused his Democratic opponent Joe Biden of being weak on China.