The United States has reaffirmed its rejection of China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, backing a policy shift initiated in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency.
In a statement yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed his predecessor Mike Pompeo’s rejection of nearly all of China’s significant maritime claims in the economically important seaway. He also certified another Trump-era promise: that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea “would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.”
“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” Blinken stated, accusing China of continuing “to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway.”
Blinken finished by calling on Beijing “to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”
Blinken’s statement was timed to today’s fifth anniversary of the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 ruling in favor the Philippines, in which it rejected most of China’s arguments and ruled that Beijing’s expansive “nine-dash line” maritime claim was inconsistent with international maritime law.
China has rejected the tribunal’s decision, with one Chinese envoy dismissing it as “just a piece of paper.” Over the past five years, Beijing has continued to defy the decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into territorial spats with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
The statement reaffirms the policy shift announced by Pompeo on July 13, 2020, which saw the U.S. effectively endorse the Arbitral Tribunal ruling, and side with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam in their maritime disputes with China.
Prior to Pompeo’s statement, the U.S. had adhered to a position of de facto neutrality on maritime and territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, stating that they should be resolved peacefully through United Nations-backed arbitration. Pompeo’s statement only applied to China’s maritime claims, and the U.S. still does not take an official position in territorial disputes over specific islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
Also significant was Blinken’s reaffirmation of Pompeo’s March 2019 assurance that Washington’s treaty obligations to the Philippines would apply to its forces and features in the South China Sea. Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty obligates both countries to come to each other’s aid in case of an attack from a third country, but until Pompeo’s statement, it was unclear whether the treaty applied to regions of the South China Sea that were only formally incorporated by Manila in 1978.
As with Pompeo, Blinken’s comments are undermined to some extent by the fact that the U.S. is yet to sign the treaty – the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – that it has accused China of violating. This suggests that for all of the vast differences in style and demeanor between the two secretaries of state, they both adhere to the same brand of American exceptionalism, which sees no need to apologize for the fact that the U.S. refuses to bind itself by the same standards that it demands of other nations.
The new administration’s affirmation of its predecessor is thus not surprising, and underlines once again the strikingly bipartisan nature of the U.S. turn against China heralded by Trump – perhaps the only issue of bipartisan concord in contemporary U.S. politics. In so doing, it helps illuminate the dispute that lies at the core of current U.S.-China rivalry: not specific violations of international law per se, but China’s desire to claim equal status to the U.S., as a superpower that is free to flout international law at its discretion.
For all that, the affirmation is likely to be welcomed, albeit quietly, in the capitals of Southeast Asian claimant states, which have been hemmed in by China’s persistently assertive behavior in the South China Sea.
The U.S. statement also reflects the impact that the Arbitral Tribunal ruling has had on international opinion on Chinese activities in the South China Sea. As Nguyen Hong Thao and Nguyen Thi Lan Huong of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam write in an article in The Diplomat today, the Arbitral Tribunal ruling has meant that outside countries “are increasingly able to find a common legal ground on which to discuss the South China Sea issues.”
Whether the gathering weight of legal opinion ends up shifting Beijing’s calculus, however, given the Chinese leadership’s ambition of excepting itself from the international rules, remains a much less certain prospect.