Changing Tack, U.S. Formally Rejects China’s Sweeping Maritime Claims

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While the Trump administration has often pushed back against China’s expansionist tendencies, it has never formally rejected Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea – until today. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a formal change in American policy: where the United States previously considered maritime sovereignty disputes to be a matter for regional negotiation, it now considers China’s extralegal territorial seas claims to be broadly invalid. 

“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,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The PRC has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region. Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its ‘Nine-Dashed Line’ claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009.” 

Pompeo cited the landmark 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Philippines and found that China’s maritime claims had no basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.S. is not a party to UNCLOS, but Pompeo noted that China has signed the treaty – and in the view of the United States, this means that “the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding.”

Based on this logic, the State Department asserted that:

  • China cannot claim an EEZ area derived from the shoreline of Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands;
  • Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within these areas is unlawful;
  • and that the U.S. rejects virtually all of China’s novel sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, except for a limited 12-nautical mile territorial sea zone derived from islands in the Spratly chain. This broad rejection covers Chinese maritime claims related to Luconia Shoals, Vanguard Bank, James Shoal and Natuna Besar.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. 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,” said Pompeo. 

The decision comes against a backdrop of rising tensions in the South China Sea. For its part, China accuses the United States of creating a double standard and attempting to “push militarization and destabilize peace,” and it regularly points out that U.S. forces are not local to the region. Both sides have participated in a slowly building tempo of military exercises in the South China Sea, notably including a U.S. Navy dual-carrier operation on July 4.

The policy change also parallels the administration’s amplified criticism of the Chinese government on a number of sensitive issues, like Beijing’s new restrictions on freedom of expression in Hong Kong and the involuntary re-education program for Muslim citizens in Xinjiang province. President Donald Trump has also repeatedly blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic, describing COVID-19 as a product of “the malfeasance of the Chinese government.”

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