The United States has rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, drawing an angry response from Beijing, which claimed Washington was trying to inflame tensions in the disputed waters.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday there was no legal basis for China’s claims on the sea and accused Beijing of using intimidatory tactics against other claimant states.
“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”
In response, the Chinese Embassy in the US described the announcement as “completely unjustified” and accused Washington of inflaming the situation.
“Under the pretext of preserving stability, (the US) is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”
The relationship between the US and China has become increasingly tense in recent months over the coronavirus pandemic – of which the US is now the world’s worst-affected country – and over China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
China stakes its claim to the South China Sea on the basis of its so-called “nine-dash line” under which virtually the whole area would belong to China. Countries around the sea including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts of the area, as does Taiwan.
Previously, US policy had been to urge the dispute to be resolved peacefully through UN-backed arbitration, but the statement suggests a hardening of the US position.
“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,” Pompeo said.
Although the US will continue to remain neutral in territorial disputes, the announcement suggests the Trump administration is in effect siding with the littoral states, 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 Pompeo’s statement.
China has refused to recognise that decision, dismissed it as a “sham”, and refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings.
Beijing has sought to shore up its claim to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, and has continued to defy the arbitration panel’s decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into regular disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
While the US has no claims itself to the waters, it has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.