Four years ago, an international tribunal in the Hague delivered a momentous verdict on Beijing’s claims to the strategic waterways of the South China Sea. It rejected Beijing’s assertions to sovereignty over virtually the whole area. It ruled that China had broken international law by building military bases on reclaimed reefs, driving away Filipino fishermen and harming the environment.
The verdict was clear, final and humiliating — and it made no difference on the ground whatsoever. This is the significance of the US’s rejection, in the words of the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, “of Beijing’s intimidation, bullying, and claims of maritime empire.” Finally, the dry words of the legal ruling in the Hague have the explicit support of the world’s last remaining superpower.
Mr Pompeo’s announcement does not fundamentally change the American position. Officially, the US still does not take a position on the ownership of the individual islets, atolls, reefs and cays of the South China Sea. It believes that sovereignty over them should be determined by the contending parties, peacefully, diplomatically and according to international law.
But it represents an outspoken official rebuttal of the aggressive changes wrought in the zone by China in the past few years. It sets the scene for new shows of force by the US and its friends, including Britain, and adds to the growing atmosphere of confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Beijing’s tone — that only an idiot could fail to see the rightness of its claims — has been robustly challenged. To the southeast Asian countries making rival claims, resistance to China has been a lonely and nerve-racking business. Today, they can feel a little less alone.
$5 trillion worth of international trade passes by ship every year through the South China Sea, including the oil that fuels the economies of China, Japan, and South Korea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim some of the hundreds of reefs and small islands in the sea, but since 2014 Beijing has strengthened its claim to virtually the entire sea by concreting over reefs to build military airports equipped with radar, missiles and aircraft.
Mr Pompeo’s pungent words of reproach are in keeping with what is clearly a political tactic by Mr Trump in the approach to November’s presidential election — to present himself as robustly standing up to China, on matters ranging from trade to security.
But China has made such domestic politicking easy for him, with its increasing assertiveness, including deadly confrontations with the army of India on their disputed border; the imposition of a harsh national security law on Hong Kong; and the dispatch of survey and coast guard ships leading to non-violent confrontations with vessels from Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan.
It was President Obama who began sending what are referred to as “freedom of navigation operations” intended to assert the right of free passage in international waters. Three months ago, the US dispatched two naval ships into waters off Malaysia in response to a Chinese government ship that had been harassing the undersea survey work by a Malaysian state oil company.
Earlier this month, two armadas led by the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan conducted exercises in the South China Sea at the same time as a Chinese carrier. After this week’s announcement, such displays are likely to increase, and with them the risk of physical confrontation, deliberate or accidental.