WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Monday rejected nearly all of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea and accused Beijing of "bullying" its neighbors to control the resources in that area.
The shift in US policy is likely to further inflame U.S.-China tensions and could provoke retaliatory measures from Beijing.
The decision, announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, comes as Washington and Beijing are increasingly at odds over everything from trade to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier on Monday, China slapped sanctions on three American lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – days after the U.S. imposed similar penalties on Chinese officials it says are responsible for the severe persecution and forced sterilization of Muslim Uighur minorities in China's Xinjiang province.
Pompeo's decision to reject China's claims in the South China Sea could prove to be a more significant flashpoint, particularly since the area has significant oil and natural gas reserves, as well as fisheries. China has made sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea – and its massive untapped oil and natural gas. Other countries have similarly made claims to islands and various zones in the South China Sea, such as the Spratly Islands, which possess rich natural resources and fishing areas.
"Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with 'might makes right,' ” Pompeo said in a statement Monday.
"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 State Department's position is "legally correct ... and long overdue," Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University, wrote on Twitter. "I think sanctions on any companies doing business in the illegal occupied Chinese waters is the obvious next step."
Gregory B. Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Pompeo's statement is significant but additional action is needed to curb China's expansionist policies.
"This should be the first step in a long term campaign to highlight Chinese illegal behavior & support partners," Poling tweeted.
Previously, U.S. policy had been to say that maritime disputes between China and its neighbors be resolved peacefully through international mediation.
But Pompeo said unimpeded commerce and freedom of the seas have come under a growing threat China as Beijing "uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion," and ignore international law.
"The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire," he said.
Still, the practical impact of the announcement isn’t immediately clear.
Although the U.S. will continue to remain neutral in territorial disputes, the announcement means the administration is in effect siding with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which oppose Chinese assertions of sovereignty over maritime areas surrounding contested islands, reefs and shoals.
The United States has no claims to the waters, although the Pentagon has deployed warships and aircraft to patrol the waterway and promote freedom of navigation in the area.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea and routinely objects to any U.S. military presence. Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.
Last week, China complained about the U.S. military conducting joint exercises with two U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the strategic waterway. The Navy said the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, along with their accompanying vessels and aircraft, conducted exercises “designed to maximize air defense capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump administration: China's claims in South China Sea are unlawful