In a clear and well-orchestrated escalation, the US State Department has effectively rejected nearly all of China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea, a law-based provocation that threatens to spike tensions in the already hotly contested maritime area.
The statement comes soon after the US conducted its first dual aircraft carrier exercises in the South China Sea in six years, as the Pentagon ramps up its military presence to deter China’s rising assertiveness in the waters.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the “world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire” and that America “stands with Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”
America’s unprecedented statement against China’s maritime moves marks a provocative new chapter in their South China Sea showdown.
The surprise announcement marks a new phase of the two superpowers’ maritime showdown and portends a possible more forceful Pentagon intervention if China moves in future on disputed land features in the sea claimed by Southeast Asian nations, including Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) ally the Philippines.
China’s Foreign Ministry struck back by accusing the US of “deliberately distorting the facts and international law” It said the US “exaggerates the situation in the region” in order to “sow discord between China and other littoral countries.
The Chinese statement maintained that the South China Sea situation “is peaceful and stable and is still improving” and decried the US for “flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.
In a shot across China’s bow, Pompeo specifically rejected China’s claim over land features such as the Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and the Mischief Reef, all of which fall within “areas that the tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ (exclusive economic zone) or on its continental shelf.
Aside from its mutual defense treaty ally in the Philippines, the US now also effectively supports the claims of other regional partners, including Vietnam, Malaysia and even Indonesia amid recent rising tensions with China off the energy-rich Natuna islands.
In its statement, the US said that it “rejects any [Chinese] maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia).”
It also effectively reaffirmed Malaysia’s claim over the China-claimed James Shoal, since it’s “an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast.
The US is now also directly challenging China’s “historic rights” claims over energy and fishery resources across the South China Sea basin and beyond, particularly within Indonesia’s EEZ in the North Natuna Sea.
Far from a cynical election ploy to shore up Trump’s anti-China credentials ahead of presidential elections in November, America’s latest statements represent a natural progression in Washington’s increasingly hawkish policies towards Beijing.
In recent years, the US has upgraded its security cooperation with new partners such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, while maintaining its commitment to traditional allies like the Philippines.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.