On July 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strong-worded statement about Washington’s position on maritime claims in the South China Sea. It declares most of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea as unlawful.
Pompeo also vowed to stand with Southeast Asian allies and partners in “protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.” He says the US “reject(s) any push to impose ‘might make right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”
Why stir things up and also agitate regional countries against China? What impacts might the latest US actions cause for the regional maritime order and China-US relations?
First, the US is forcing Southeast Asian countries to take its side, not China’s. To any unbiased observers, the situation in the South China Sea has greatly improved over the past several years due to China’s restraints and the efforts of other claimants.
Despite China’s three Nos (no participation, no recognition, and no acceptance) positions on the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s decision, which is very biased against China, China has shown great restraints. It has reached out to the Philippines to calm down tensions. As a result, China’s relations with the Philippines and ASEAN as a whole have steadily improved in the past several years despite the still unresolved maritime disputes.
However, as the Trump administration defined China as a strategic competitor and long-term challenger to the US and launched a trade war with China, it has churned the waters of the region with confrontational tactics. What’s more, the US is inciting nationalism in Southeast Asia by declaring China’s claims “unlawful” to force other claimants to take a hard position toward Beijing in the disputes.
Second, the US is opening a new fighting front against China. Since 2019, the Trump administration has dramatically ratcheted up its rhetoric and tactics toward China. The US congress has initiated or passed numerous domestic acts on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, and the South China Sea.
The Trump administration also imposed sanctions against a number of Chinese Hi-tech companies, started a diplomatic offensive to block Huawei in 5G construction, restricted visas to Chinese students and scholars, and restricted or prohibited science and technology exchanges or cooperation programs between China and the US. The hardliners inside and outside the Trump administration argue that China has become the US’ top competitor – and the US must fight on all fronts now, not later, if they are to have any chance of winning the competition with China.
Third, by declaring unambiguously and specifically some of China’s claims in the South China Sea as “unlawful”, it gives the green light for further and bolder US activities in the South China Sea. With flailing trade negations with China, the Trump administration found the disputes in the South China Sea a useful card in its Indo-Pacific Strategy.
As a result, the Trump administration has strengthened its “freedom of navigation” activities in the South China Sea. It even regularly sends coast guards ships to the South China Sea to pay port visits and “enforce law”. The US position on the South China Sea will no doubt have serious negative impacts on regional maritime order and China-US relations.
First, The US is stirring up the water and endangering regional maritime order. Hopefully, China and ASEAN will finalize the COC negotiation in the South China Sea by 2021 and make the South China Sea a region of stability and prosperity. By singling out China and declaring China’s claims unlawful, the US sends wrong signals to the relevant parties and only encourages hotheads in the region.
Second, it may create a geopolitical fault line in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia experienced severe impact of the Cold War in history. This is also one of the reasons why Singapore Prime Minister calls for China and the US to pull back from a new cold war.
Third, it will further push China-US relations toward confrontation.
Beijing has said time again that China does not want confrontational relations with the US and has no intention of replacing it. But at the same time, China also makes it clear that we will not be bullied and will definitely safeguard our sovereignty, security, and development interests.
If the US escalates military activities in the South China Sea and even dangerously intrudes the territorial waters of China in the South China Sea, it may lead to unexpected incidents no one wants and spiral China-US relations out of control.
Wei Zongyou is professor, Center for American Studies, Fudan University