In recent weeks the Obama administration has done an about face on its position toward Asia’s sovereignty disputes, and is now actively challenging China on its nine-dash line claim to most of the South China Sea.
Until recently, the Obama administration had held steadfastly to the position that the U.S. does not take sides on any of the sovereignty disputes in Asia, but insists that parties to the dispute do not resort or threaten to resort to the use of force to settle them.
A series of comments by senior officials in the Obama administration in recent weeks mark a clear departure from that position. Instead of the previously neutral language the U.S. usually employs, Washington now is increasingly challenging the basis of China’s claims, particularly with regard to its nine-dashed line claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
This was perhaps best exemplified by recent Congressional testimony from Danny Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
“Any Chinese claim to maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. China could highlight its respect for international law by clarifying or adjusting its claim to bring it into accordance with international law of the sea,” Russel told Congress last week.
He went on to take criticize specific Chinese actions.
“This includes continued restrictions on access to the Scarborough reef, pressure on the longstanding Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal and the recent updating of fishing regulations covering disputed areas in the South China Sea. Our view is that these actions have raised tensions in the region and have exacerbated concerns about China’s long term strategic objectives.”
Similarly, while visiting the Philippines on Monday, Russel’s deputy, Scot Marciel, said: “What we’ve emphasized is the importance of all claimant states following international law, and kind of agreed-upon rules of behavior during the period when these disputes were under way…. So whenever you look at what we say publicly, it’s always about maintaining the peace, the stability that’s critical to prosperity in the region but also urging all the claimants, including China, to follow sort of rules and international law.”
The Obama administration has also acted preemptively in warning China against establishing a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
The strongest warning on this point was delivered by Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council. In an interview with Japan’s Kyodo News Agency late last month, Medeiros stated unequivocally: “We oppose China’s establishment of an ADIZ in other areas, including the South China Sea…. “We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that (setting up another ADIZ) as a provocative and destabilizing development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region.”
Secretary of State John Kerry has issued similar warnings, albeit in a much more measured tone. This week, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Pacific Command, also spoke out against a potential South China Sea ADIZ during an interview with Defense News.
China has predictably taken issue with the Obama administration’s more critical position. In response to Russel’s comment last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry put out a press release stating: “China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea are formed in history and protected by international law. China stays committed to resolving maritime disputes with countries directly concerned through negotiation and consultation.”
The statement went on to say: “Relevant comments made by the U.S. official in congressional testimony are not constructive. We urge the U.S. to be rational and fair and play a constructive role for peace, stability, prosperity and development of the region, rather than the opposite.”
This should give Kerry and Chinese officials much to talk about during the U.S. Secretary of State’s trip to Beijing this week.