Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs

United States Clarifies South China Sea Stance

On July 13, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement * calling China’s extensive and controversial South China Sea claims “completely unlawful.”  China claims thousands of square miles of the South China Sea as integral territory.  Over the last ten years, China has escalated her claims into action, constructing artificial islands on low lying features such as reefs and shoals.  China’s goals are military and economic. 

Military bases, already being constructed in the South China Sea, can deter other nations’ navies and fishing fleets from entering.  Successful assertion of China’s territorial claims would also result in a windfall of economic resources.  Asia scholar Michael Auslin reminds us that over 78 years ago, geopolitician Nichols J. Spykman proposed the South China Sea area forms an “Asian Mediterranean,” a maritime highway connecting productive nations in Asia with each other and the world. 

Mr. Pompeo said the “Nine Dashed Line,” an artificial line drawn on a map of the South China Sea by a Chinese geographer around 1947, has not been supported by a “coherent legal basis” from Beijing.  The Nine Dashed Line encompasses about 90 percent of the South China Sea.  China’s claims conflict with the maritime boundary claims of several other nations, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.   

A signal event in the contest over the strategic waters was the July 12, 2016 decision in an arbitral tribunal case brought by the Philippines against China.  The Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in the Hague, Netherlands, ruled that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), China’s claims to ownership of the South China Sea were invalid.  Both China and the Philippines are signatories to the UNCLOS.  The United States is not a signatory, but traditionally supports the rules of UNCLOS as customary international law.  The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission described the tribunal’s decision as “overwhelmingly favorable to the Philippines’ position.”  China attempted to brush the tribunal’s ruling off as illegitimate.    

Not only was the vast Nine Dashed Line discredited by the tribunal’s ruling, but China’s attempt to consolidate reefs and shoals into manufactured land features capable of sustaining a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone was also ruled illegal.  Under UNCLOS, mainland territories and islands grant the possessor a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, which is critical for the extraction of underwater fossil fuels and exercising fishing rights.  The exclusive economic zone should not be confused with a nation’s territorial waters, which extend up to twelve miles from the shore of a mainland or island, and over which a nation exercises more indicia of sovereignty. 

Mr. Pompeo’s statement declared the United States aligns its position with the tribunal’s rulings.    

This is a significant step as the United States does not readily involve itself in the territorial disputes of third parties in such a manner.  The United States has, however, challenged China’s claims for years through freedom of navigation operations.  Mr. Pompeo’s statement comes after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations released a statement in late June opposing China’s expansive claims. 

Look for more signs in the coming months that the United States is seeking to build international consensus behind the position announced by Mr. Pompeo.  China may respond with more aggressive action or provocation aimed at the United States, or a regional power with a conflicting maritime claim.  At stake is international access to a strategic and economically important waterway.  

Author: Chris Crawford   

The views presented by the author or Strike Source do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, its components, or the United States government.

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