On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed that the US rejects most of Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea. The rejection was first formalized by the Trump administration’s State Department last July.
“The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea,” Blinken said. The US rejects China’s claims under the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that defines the rights of nations to territorial waters. The State Department also cites a 2016 international tribunal ruling made under UNCLOS that sided with the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China.
“Freedom of the seas is an enduring interest of all nations and is vital to global peace and prosperity. The international community has long benefited from the rules-based maritime order, where international law, as reflected in the UN Law of the Sea Convention, sets out the legal framework for all activities in the oceans and seas,” Blinken said. For all the talk about international law, the US never ratified UNCLOS and is not a party to the treaty.
Also in his statement, Blinken reminded China that Washington is willing to risk war over Beijing and Manila’s maritime dispute. “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
The US frequently sails warships near Chinese claimed islands in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s claims in provocative maneuvers known as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). On Monday, a US Navy destroyer sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands, drawing condemnation from China.
Besides the FONOPs, US military activity in the region has increased overall in recent years as the US is more focused on confronting China. There is now an almost constant presence of US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, something that used to be a rare occurrence.
The increased military activity coupled with the low state of US-China relations means a military accident between the two nations could lead to a broader conflict. These dangerous policies show no sign of changing, as the Pentagon has identified Beijing as the top “pacing threat,” and there is virtually no opposition to hardline China policies in Washington.