The United States formally declared "illegal" on Monday almost all of China's claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, increasing the escalation of tension between the American nation and the communist regime within which Washington already opposes Beijing's activity in this disputed area.
"We make clear that Beijing's claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea are completely illegal, as is its campaign of intimidation to control them," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an official statement.
Mike Pompeo highlighted his country's work for a "free and open Indo-Pacific". "Today we are strengthening U.S. policy in a vital and contentious part of that region: the South China Sea," Pompeo said. "In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, defend the freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of trade, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to resolve disputes. We share these deep and abiding interests with our many allies and partners who have long supported a rules-based international order," the U.S. secretary of state said.
"These shared interests have been under unprecedented threat from the People's Republic of China (PRC). Beijing is using intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of the Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, intimidate them into taking resources from the coast, assert unilateral dominance and replace international law with the idea that power does good. Beijing's approach has been clear for years. In 2010, then-PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his ASEAN counterparts that China is a big country and other countries are small, and that is just a fact. The PRC's predatory world view has no place in the 21st century," Pompeo warned.
Mike Pompeo also referred to the pressure and abuse that the country presided by Xi Jinping is exerting on the region and its maritime areas: "The People's Republic of China cannot legally assert a maritime claim - including the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims arising from the Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands - against the Philippines in areas that the Court of Arbitration in The Hague considered to be in the Philippines' EEZ or on its continental shelf. Beijing's harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development in these areas is illegal, as is any unilateral action by the People's Republic of China to exploit these resources," the US diplomat said, adding that "the PRC has no legitimate territorial or maritime claims over Mischief Reef or the Second Thomas Shoal, which are fully within Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction," and that "Beijing also has no territorial or maritime claims arising from these features.
"As Beijing has not made a legitimate and consistent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any claim by the People's Republic of China to waters beyond a 12-mile territorial sea derived from the islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to the sovereignty claims of other States over those islands). As such, the United States rejects any maritime claim by the PRC in the waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), the Banks of Luconia (off Malaysia), the waters of the EEZ of Brunei and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any action by the PRC to harass other states' fishing or oil development in these waters - or to carry out such activities unilaterally - is illegal," Pompeo said.
"The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights over maritime resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defending the freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty, and we reject any attempt to impose the idea that power does good in the South China Sea or in the region in general," concluded the American representative.
Although the American nation headed by Donald Trump had already expressed its rejection of most of China's sovereignty claims in the region, its official diplomatic position was to insist that maritime disputes in the area should be resolved peacefully between the parties involved.
Pompeo's communiqué means that, for the first time, the United States formally declares its rejection of most Chinese sovereignty claims, to the point of detailing the perimeters it considers outside China's legitimate control.
China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, a key strategic space for international trade and rich in natural resources, which is also partially claimed by Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The new US position does not apply to territories above sea level, but it rejects any Chinese claim to the maritime areas covered by a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which found in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China, but which Beijing does not recognise.
"Because Beijing has not filed a legitimate and consistent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any claim by the People's Republic of China over waters that are more than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from the territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands," Pompeo added. The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls and cays whose sovereignty is fully or partially claimed by China and the Philippines, as well as by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
In this way, the United States tightens the rope with Beijing after the strong clashes caused by issues such as the past trade war between the two countries, with mutual imposition of tariffs and American veto on Chinese technology companies in their own market, as was the case of Huawei (a company that was accused of industrial espionage); or as the recent dispute over the management of the health crisis of COVID-19, about which there were strong clashes over how China dealt with the origins of the coronavirus and the real circumstances surrounding the emergence or creation of the pathogen in Chinese territory.
It is not clear that the US announcement on the South China Sea could have a real impact since, although it has patrolled the area for decades and has carried out military exercises, it has no claim over the waters and is not part of the United Nations (UN) convention on maritime law.
The tension remains strong in this area and in the Pacific area, where China has extended its influence on states such as Kiribati, Samoa or Solomon Islands thanks to its diplomatic activity and its assistance to the nations of this area to advise and support against the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the communist regime has secured a close ally in the figure of the recently re-elected president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, who is very close to the Chinese sphere (even withdrawing his traditional support for one of China's most significant rivals, Taiwan). This strengthening of ties with Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reef islands in the central Pacific with a population of 116,000 people, gives China the possibility of being very close to the American state of Hawaii, since the Christmas Island of Kiribati, the largest atoll in the world with an area of 150 square kilometers, is located only about 2,100 kilometers south of Honolulu, home of the U.S. Army Pacific Command.
Precisely, the American giant recently sent a contingent of aircraft carriers to this area of the Pacific, something that had not happened for years, to mark its territory in a region where it has always had a great presence and good relations, as is the case of another nation with great ascendancy over the countries of the area, such as Australia.