WASHINGTON: In what a top China expert calls a “very significant” policy shift, the Trump administration sharpened America’s position today on who controls the South China Sea and how the region’s many disputes should be resolved. China is likely to be unhappy.
The move comes less than a week after the US mounted a rare two-carrier freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea.
The change was announced in a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, giving it greater visibility and making clear that the policy probably has direct support from the White House since Pompeo is one of President Trump’s closest advisors.
Dean Cheng, a top expert on the Chinese military at the Heritage Institute, explains that it “now provides a policy outline to explain and fill out the increased undertaking of FONOPS (including the two-carrier operation in the SCS last week).” This Pompeo statement is part of a much broader shift in both policy and US military actions, he argues.
For almost three years, the US did not run any FONOPs, sending a clear signal to China by their absence. “From 2012-2015, the US undertook no FONOPS at all. From 2015-2016, the US engaged in a handful of ‘innocent passage’ operations, which only blurred the situation, since ‘innocent passage’ implicitly recognized Chinese territorial/sovereignty claims,” Cheng writes. “Since January 2017, the US has engaged in a sustained program of FONOPS (not ‘innocent passage’) operations. But, as has been pointed out, FONOPS are not a policy. They are a REFLECTION of policy.”
Today, Cheng says, Pompeo put meat on the policy bones, “making clear:
“The US accepts the Permanent Court of Arbitration findings as international law.
“Consistent with those findings, the US does not accept Chinese versions of its disputes with not only the Philippines, but also Malaysia. As important, it does not accept Chinese claims over not only the Spratlys, but also Scarborough Shoal/Reef.”
This is occurring, said Cheng, “even as Beijing makes clear that it is not bound by international law such as the Sino-UK Joint Declaration regarding Hong Kong.”
Last week, in addition to the two-carrier operation, the US announced a sale to Japan of 105 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and related equipment for an estimated $23.1 billion. “This,” Cheng notes with characteristic understatement, “is unlikely to go down well in Beijing.”
In his statement, Pompeo says that “Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with ‘might makes right.’ Beijing’s approach has been clear for years. In 2010, then-PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his ASEAN counterparts that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.’ The PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.”
Breaking D readers know that a UN tribunal ruled that China’s claims throughout the South China Sea have no basis in international law and are illegal.
Pompeo’s statement says “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.”
The policy statement goes into some detail, clearly to leave China little room to argue.
“Today,” Pompeo’s statement says, “we are aligning the U.S. position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the SCS with the Tribunal’s decision. Specifically:
“The PRC cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim – including any Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims derived from Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands – vis-a-vis the Philippines in areas that the Tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf. Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources. In line with the Tribunal’s legally binding decision, the PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal, both of which fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction, nor does Beijing have any territorial or maritime claims generated from these features.
“As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’ sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful.
“The PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to (or derived from) James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast. James Shoal is often cited in PRC propaganda as the “southernmost territory of China.” International law is clear: An underwater feature like James Shoal cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating maritime zones. James Shoal (roughly 20 meters below the surface) is not and never was PRC territory, nor can Beijing assert any lawful maritime rights from it.”
Just to make sure there isn’t any room for doubt, the State Department statement says this at the end:
“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. We stand with the international community in defense 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.”
We’ll be watching for the reaction of allies and partners. China, consider yourself on notice.