What hides behind the ‘new’ US policy for the South China Sea


The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made a politically motivated statement on 13th July on the South China Sea policy. The policy said, Beijing had “no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington responded on Monday that the US was “throwing its weight around in every sea of the world.”  adding that the “US deliberately distorts the facts and international law including Law of the Sea”.

The South China Sea Conflict

The South China Sea dispute is a complex one. It involves several countries who claim sovereignty over maritime boundaries and two islands – the Spratlys and the Paracels. The countries involved over this dispute of claims are Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

This dispute began soon after the end of World War II. During the war, the Imperial Japanese Navy took control of the islands in the South China Sea for military purposes stating it was not claimed by anyone. When Imperial Japan lost the war, they ceded control of the islands in the South China Sea in the Treaty of San Francisco, 1951. The treaty didn’t specify or demarcate the new status of the islands and since then the countries in the South China Sea have had their disputes over claims in the region.

China claims the largest portion of this territory as its own citing its claim goes back to centuries ago. In 2015, President Xi Jinping of China said, “islands in the South China Sea “have been China’s territory since ancient times.” Vietnam disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Infact, Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century with documents to prove it. The portion claimed by China is called the “nine-dash line.” Following its claim, Beijing has expanded its military presence and increased patrols in this area. Though they claim their intentions as peaceful, it certainty didn’t sit well with other countries in this region who are cautious of China’ move as a step to change the status quo in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is an important region for various reasons. The area is a trade route of greatest value. According to the 2015 report of the US Department of Defense, $5.3 trillion worth of goods moves through the sea every year, which is about 30 percent of global maritime trade. The US Energy Information Agency estimates there are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the sea. Hence, making this region a very strategic one and whoever may control this region will gain to benefit the most. Also, all countries would want to keep this channel of trade route open and free for all to enable free flow of goods.

UNCLOS Tribunal

In 2013, an arbitration case was filed by the Philippines under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) at The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague, which then constituted an arbitral tribunal under Annex VII to the 1982 UNCLOS. It was filed when China took control over Subi /Zhubi Reef. Both countries claim sovereignty over it. On 19 February 2013, the Chinese government rejected and returned Philippines’s note verbale. Beijing, again indicated that “it does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines” on 1 August 2013. Even after Beijing said it will not participate in the arbitration, the tribunal went ahead with its proceeding. It should be noted that both China and Philippines are not only signatory members of UNCLOS but are also ratified members of the convention.

In 2016, the tribunal not only decided against China, it rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. In fact the tribunal said that China violated the international law and caused irreparable harm to the marine environment. It had also endangered and interfered with Philippines’ fishing and oil exploration activities. However, the tribunal did not rule on the ownership of islands or delimit the maritime boundaries.

Beijing called the ruling “ill-founded” and said it will not abide by it. They stated that they did not recognize the tribunal and insisted that the matter should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with other claimants. Though China prefers bilateral negotiations, other parties argue that China’s power and enormous territory is an unfair advantage which would triumph over the other countries.

Contextualizing Mike Pompeo’s Statement

On one hand, reiterating the tribunal’s decision and on the other, declaring US policy for the South China Sea as “new”, Mike Pompeo’s statement is quite the dialectic. The international community couldn’t help but see the irony. Now let me explain what I mean by this-

1. The policy statement read, “as the US has previously stated, and as specifically provided in the [UN Law of the Sea] Convention (UNCLOS), the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties.” However, the US is the only developed country which has not ratified the UNCLOS and yet they claim to be the legal standard.

While US points out China may not have adhered to the tribunal’s decision, US is hardly an ideal follower of the deçisions of international conventions. The US has also rejected international judgements in the past. In 2018, after Washington pulled out from the 1955 Treaty of Amity with Iran, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Tehran and ordered the US to ensure sanctions against Iran do not impact humanitarian aid. At that point of time, Mike Pompeo dismissed the ruling as “meritless,” hence rejecting the court decision.

So, it seems like the US is caught in its own web and has taken a hypocritical position with its new policy for the South China Sea.

2. The US-China tensions are no hidden secret to anyone. The question which then arises here is whether the US is using the South China sea conflict as a means to increase its military presence in the area?

This announcement is a strategic shift in the US policy in the Trump administration. The last time the US stance on the South China sea was a major topic of discussion under the Obama administration. At the US-ASEAN summit in California in 2016, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea were discussed. But, it concluded through the joint statement, the “Sunnylands Declaration” which did not name the South China Sea. Instead, it called for “respect of each nation’s sovereignty and for international law.”

The announcement by Mike Pompeo is an important shift in the declaratory policy of the US on the South China Sea. There has been a shift of US sentiments towards China.  Under the Trump administration, Washington has been repeatedly criticizing Beijing over a range of issues such as the Hong Kong protests, the Covid 19 global pandemic, treatment of the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. All these US-China tensions are beaming to what can be said as a technological cold war, where US President Trump may ban Tik Tok and other Chinese apps. Therefore, the recent US policy statement on the South China Sea is the result of US-China tensions. Mr Pompeo’s declaration, “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners …,” indicates US play for the countries with whom China is in dispute over the South China Sea region, a move out of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu’s political stratagems.  

Mike Pompeo had also said in his tweet, “We are strengthening U.S. policy on South China Sea maritime claims, according to international law, in rejection of Beijing’s intimidation, bullying, and claims of maritime empire.”

So, the question remains: does this policy over the South China sea is only a means to an end favourable to the US?

Mozammil Ahmad
Mozammil Ahmad
Mozammil Ahmad is a freelance researcher and currently pursuing LL.B from Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, India. His work has been previously published in The Diplomat, Dhaka Tribune and Modern Diplomacy.


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