WASHINGTON – The United States formally rejected most of China’s contested claims to the South China Sea on Monday (July 13), issuing a statement that backed an international arbitral tribunal’s ruling in 2016 that Beijing’s claims are illegal.
“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,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in the US said it firmly opposed the statement, which it said deliberately distorted the facts and international law, exaggerated the situation in the region, and attempted to sow discord between China and other coastal states in the South China Sea.
“The US is not a country directly involved in the disputes. However, it has kept interfering in the issue,” said the spokesman in a statement.
“We advise the US side to earnestly honour its commitment of not taking sides on the issue of territorial sovereignty, respect regional countries’ efforts for a peaceful and stable South China Sea and stop its attempts to disrupt and sabotage regional peace and stability,” the spokesman added.
In his statement, Mr Pompeo said the US was aligning its position with the tribunal’s decision in 2016, which rejected China’s maritime claims as having no basis in international law.
China claims swathes of the South China Sea within its “nine dash line”, including waters and maritime entitlements within the exclusive economic zones of other coastal states like Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Those claims were rejected in 2016, almost exactly four years ago, by an international arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), in a case brought by the Philippines.
While Washington has objected to China’s claims before, sending navy ships to the contested waters for freedom of navigation operations, analysts said that Monday’s statement is the first time the US has definitively rejected the claims.
“The statements themselves represent an evolution, rather than a sharp break from, prior US policy towards the South China Sea. It makes certain positions which the US has implicitly held for many years more open and explicit,” said Mr Patrick Chovanec, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, on Twitter.
He added: “It potentially lays the legal foundation for the US to take more assertive action contesting China’s efforts to control, and interfere with other countries activities, in the South China Sea…if it wishes and is prepared to do so.”
In the statement, Mr Pompeo explicitly sided with South-east Asian nations, saying: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our South-east 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,” he added.
The Chinese embassy spokesman, however, said that China and other littoral countries have maintained dialogue and communication through consultation mechanisms on maritime affairs, and worked to promote cooperation over the South China Sea.
“Within the framework of fully and effectively implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, China and Asean countries are advancing the consultation on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and are making visible progress,” said China’s statement.
It also criticised the US for citing Unclos, pointing out that Washington has refused to ratify that international convention.
A Global Asset Management Seoul Korea Magazine