The US officially rejected nearly all of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea on Monday in a major escalation that is sure to enrage Beijing and inflame the region.
“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,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on the matter. Pompeo went on to list specific claims the US is rejecting in waters close to the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Indonesia.
Before this announcement, the previous US policy was to insist that maritime disputes between China and its neighbors be resolved peacefully through UN arbitration. But since 2015, the US has sailed warships near disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea in what it calls “Freedom of Navigation Operations,” a clear provocation towards Beijing that has done nothing but ratchet up tensions in the region.
Pompeo argues China’s claims are “unlawful” and cited a 2016 ruling made by an international tribunal in the Hague that took the Philippines’ side in a territorial dispute with Beijing. The smaller countries in the region all have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, and the US has not taken the side of a particular nation, as Washington’s aim is solely to counter China.
It is not clear how the US plans to counter China’s maritime claims, but there has been an increased US military presence in the region. The US Navy conducted massive military exercises in the South China Sea on July 4th. Hundreds of military planes and helicopters took off from two aircraft carriers in Washington’s largest drills in the region in years.
The US drills coincided with Chinese military exercises near the Paracel Islands, one of the disputed territories in the South China Sea. Beijing always denounces Washington’s presence in the regions. A spokesman from China’s foreign ministry recently called the US military the “fundamental cause of instability in the South China Sea.”