Published On: Sel, Jul 14th, 2020

US moves to block all Chinese claims in South China Sea

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The move is likely to further infuriate China, which already is retaliating against US sanctions on other matters.

The Trump administration escalated its actions against China on Monday by stepping squarely into one of the most sensitive regional issues dividing them and rejecting outright nearly all of Beijing’s significant maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The administration presented the decision as an attempt to curb China’s increasing assertiveness in the region with a commitment to recognising international law. But it will almost certainly have the more immediate effect of further infuriating the Chinese, who are already retaliating against numerous US sanctions and other penalties on other matters.

It also comes as President Donald Trump has come under growing fire for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, stepped up criticism of China in the run-up to the 2020 election and sought to paint his expected Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, as weak on China.

Previously, US policy had been to insist that maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbours be resolved peacefully through UN-backed arbitration. But in a statement released on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US now regards virtually all Chinese maritime claims outside its internationally recognised waters to be illegitimate. The shift does not involve disputes over land features that are above sea level, which are considered to be “territorial” in nature.

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

Although the US will continue to remain neutral in territorial disputes, the announcement means the administration is in effect siding with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which oppose Chinese assertions of sovereignty over maritime areas surrounding contested islands, reefs and shoals.

“There are clear cases where [China] is claiming sovereignty over areas that no country can lawfully claim,” the State Department said in a fact sheet that accompanied the statement.

The announcement was released a day after the fourth anniversary of a binding decision by an arbitration panel in favour of the Philippines that rejected China’s maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighbouring reefs and shoals.

China has refused to recognise that decision, dismissed it as a “sham”, and refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings. It has continued to defy the decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into territorial spats with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in recent years.

However, as a result, the administration said China has no valid maritime claims to the fish- and potentially energy-rich Scarborough Reef, Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal. The US has repeatedly said areas regarded to be part of the Philippines are covered by a US-Philippines mutual defence treaty in the event of an attack on them.

In addition to reiterating support for that decision, Pompeo said China cannot legally claim the James Shoal near Malaysia, waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, the Luconia Shoals near Brunei and Natuna Besar off Indonesia. As such, the US said it would regard any Chinese harassment of fishing vessels or oil exploration in those areas as unlawful.

China has sought to shore up its claim to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, leading the US to sail its warships through the region in what it calls “freedom of operation missions”. The US has no claims itself to the waters but has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.

Last week, China angrily complained about the US flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea by conducting joint exercises with two US aircraft carrier groups in the strategic waterway. The US Navy said the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, along with their accompanying vessels and aircraft, conducted exercises “designed to maximize air defence capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations”.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea and routinely objects to any action by the US military in the region. Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately five trillion dollars in goods are shipped every year.

Source: Al-Jazeera

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