Won't let Beijing treat South China Sea as its 'maritime empire': US

Updated: Jul 15, 2020, 07:59 IST | Agencies | Washington

China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam

China's flag flying over octagonal structures built on stilts at the Manila-claimed Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, known as Nansha islands by China, located in the South China Sea. Pic/AFP
China's flag flying over octagonal structures built on stilts at the Manila-claimed Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, known as Nansha islands by China, located in the South China Sea. Pic/AFP

The world will not allow China to treat the strategically important South China Sea as its "maritime empire," the US has asserted, as it vowed to support worried Southeast Asian countries against Beijing's "campaign of bullying" to control the resource-rich region. Beijing claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory. China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Beijing has impeded commercial activity like fishing or mineral exploration by countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, claiming that the ownership of territory belonged to China for hundreds of years. Asserting that the "Chinese predatory world view" has no place in the 21st century, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday categorically rejected the territorial claims made by Beijing in the South China Sea. "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," Pompeo said in a major policy announcement.

The United States, he said, stands with the international community in the defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and rejects any push to impose "might makes right" in the South China Sea or the wider region. Pompeo said China 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 a tribunal found to be in the Philippines' EEZ or on its continental shelf. The US, he said, rejects any Chinese 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). Also, China 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, Pompeo said.

"We are making clear: Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them," he said. The sea is also a vital shipping route and has major fishing grounds. In the South China Sea, the US seeks to preserve peace and stability, uphold the freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes, Pompeo said. He alleged that Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal nations 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, Pompeo said. In 2010, then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi told his ASEAN counterparts that "China is a big country and other countries are small and that is just a fact", he said, adding that the Chinese predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.

China "has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region", the secretary of state said. Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its "Nine-Dashed Line" claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009, he added. In a unanimous decision on July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 law of the sea convention -- to which China is a state party -- rejected the country's maritime claims as having no basis in international law. The tribunal sided squarely with the Philippines, which brought the arbitration case, "on almost all claims", Pompeo said. The announcement by the Trump administration was welcomed by several top American lawmakers. The announcement makes clear that the US will support its regional allies in the defence of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, said Senator Marco Rubio. The People's Republic of China (PRC) cannot be allowed to illegally assert control over maritime territory in the region and the US has rightly rejected all of Beijing's spurious claims, he said.

"China's unlawful actions will not be tolerated and I urge my colleagues in Congress to swiftly pass my bipartisan South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act (S.1634) to impose costs on Chinese individuals and entities for their flagrant violations of international law," Rubio said. President Donald Trump once again countered Chinese aggression by rejecting its absurd claims in the South China Sea, said Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart. "The US must continue to oppose PRC bullying, deception, IP theft and human rights abuses," he said. This is a "smart move", said Senator Jim Inhofe. "The PRC's claims in the South China Sea are unlawful, plain and simple. The U.S. stands against Beijing's bullying, and with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region," he said in a tweet. On Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Washington criticised Pompeo's announcement, calling the accusations "completely unjustified." The US "distorts the facts and international law ... , exaggerates the situation in the region and attempts to sow discord between China and other littoral countries," the Chinese Embassy said in a statement.

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