U.S. Clarifies Position on the South China Sea

Washington rejects Beijing's claims . . .

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated on Monday that China’s maritime claims over most of the South China Sea based on the “nine-dash-line” claim were “completely unlawful.” He also said that China’s “bullying” behaviour to control offshore resources in the area was illegal. The statement listed the specific Chinese maritime claims the United States considers illegal and restated and endorsed the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 South China Sea Arbitration, which rejected China’s claims in the region as having no basis in international law.

A U.S. policy shift?

According to experts, Monday’s statement merely clarified and officially stated prior U.S. positions on the South China Sea without instituting a shift in the U.S. policy. However, the statement did explicitly take a position on maritime disputes by stating that under international law, most of the resources of the South China Sea belong to the coastal states (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam). And hence it is illegal for China to engage in fishing, oil and gas exploration, or other economic activities in the area.

What’s next?

If Pompeo’s statement doesn’t indicate a shift in its policy toward the South China Sea issue, it could signal how the U.S. will operate in the region moving forward and potentially open a new area of confrontation between the U.S., its allies, and China. The balance of power in the South China Sea is perceived as having shifted in China’s favour, and some pundits were expecting that the U.S. would eventually flex its muscle in this area of tremendous strategic importance. In recent months the U.S. has been more active in the South China Sea. For example, last month, it sent three aircraft carriers to patrol the region, the most significant naval deployment in the area in years, and it sent a destroyer to conduct a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) the day after Pompeo’s remarks. Such FONOPs are likely to become more frequent, which could increase the risk of military confrontation.