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.