The new Cold War between the U.S. and China is being played out on many fronts. Washington is passing legislation and putting sanctions on Chinese officials over issues from Taiwan to Xinjiang. But perhaps the most dangerous front — the one most likely to erupt into a military conflict — is the South China Sea. Over 7,000 miles from North America, these contested waters have hosted massive U.S. Navy exercises in recent weeks as Washington has inserted itself into a maritime dispute between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. The increased military activity, coupled with the Trump administration’s formal rejection of most of Beijing’s claims to the waters, has turned an already sensitive flashpoint between the two powers into a tinder box.
On July 13th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out the Trump administration’s official policy towards China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Under the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that defines the rights of nations to territorial waters, Pompeo said the U.S. considers most of China’s claims in the region “unlawful.” Pompeo cited a 2016 ruling from an international tribunal in The Hague that sided with the Philippines over Beijing in a territorial dispute. The tribunal decision said China cannot claim any area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under UNCLOS, the EEZ is an area that extends 200 nautical miles off of a country’s coast, and that nation has exclusive rights to the resources in the zone.
The tribunal decided that features China lays claim to in the Spratly Islands, a contested archipelago in the South China Sea, are technically rocks, not islands. Therefore, China is not granted an EEZ around these features and is only entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial zone. Pompeo said the U.S. rejects any “PRC [People’s Republic of China] claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands.” Pompeo also rejected China’s claims to certain features of the Spratly Islands that are considered part of the Philippines’ EEZ under the tribunal ruling.
While the Trump administration is using UNCLOS in its approach to counter Beijing, one fact Pompeo left out of his statement is that the U.S. never ratified the treaty. Pompeo wants Beijing to recognize the tribunal’s ruling based on a treaty the U.S. is not a party to. Like it so often does, the U.S. is only using international law in this case because it fits Washington’s agenda. An article published before the tribunal ruling in 2016 by a think-tank that covers maritime issues in Asia, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, pointed out that the U.S. and other countries claim EZZs around islands similar to the Spratlys.
“If this is indeed the official U.S. position, and if the tribunal decides in Manila’s favor regarding the legal status of features in the Spratlys, then in order to respect that precedent the U.S. government will need to consider changing or abandoning its claim to 200 EEZs and continental shelves from its remote Pacific islands. It should be hoped that other states, including Australia and Japan, also take the tribunal’s decisions into account and bring their maritime claims and conduct into conformity with UNCLOS if necessary,” the article reads.
Pompeo also rejected China’s claims to waters near the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Indonesia. Besides disputes with China, these Southeast Asian countries have their own overlapping claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. did not take the side of any particular country and is clearly involved in the dispute for the sole purpose of countering China.
China says it has “historic rights” to the South China Sea and outlines its claims with the nine-dash line, a vague boundary that includes about 80 percent of the waters. The nine-dash line was originally an eleven-dash line, which included the Gulf of Tonkin, waters east of Vietnam. The eleven-dash line was drawn up by the Republic of China in 1947, the government of Washington’s ally Chiang Kai-shek, before he was driven to Taiwan by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. The 2016 tribunal concluded “that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,’” a detail Pompeo included in his statement on the matter.
China has not recognized the tribunal ruling, and until very recently, Manila did not recognize it either. The two countries engaged in negotiations over the waters for the past four years. But on July 12th, just one day before Pompeo’s statement, the Philippines officially broke away from its policy and asked China to respect the tribunal ruling. This decision was likely made with the foreknowledge of the coming shift in U.S. policy.
Pompeo’s statement raises a lot of questions. First and foremost, how far is the U.S. willing to go to counter China in the South China Sea? The U.S. and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty, does this mean the U.S. could go to war with China if it infringes on a reef in Manila’s EEZ?
With a recent uptick in U.S. Navy activity in the region, experts warn the risk of a military confrontation between the two powers is very high. A South China Sea expert told The South China Morning Post that the increased military activity from both sides has increased tensions “to an unprecedentedly high level.” Last week, two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups entered the South China Sea for the second time this month. The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz held massive drills on July 4th in a show of force aimed at Beijing, exercises that coincided with Chinese Navy drills near the Paracel Islands.
Also last week, a U.S. warship sailed near the Spratly Islands in what Washington calls a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP). FONOPs in the South China Sea near Chinese-claimed islands started in 2015 under the Obama administration. Before Pompeo’s announcement, the official U.S. position was to push for China and its neighbors to settle territorial disputes in arbitration. But sending warships within miles of Chinese territory sent a different message to Beijing, and likely played a role in China’s rapid militarization of its claimed islands.
In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly pledged that China would not militarize artificial islands in the Spratlys. Just one month later, in October 2015, the U.S. ran its first FONOP near the Spratly Islands since 2012. A U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a feature that China turned into an artificial island. After a year of increased U.S. Naval patrols, China announced it was building “necessary military facilities” in the Spratly Islands.
Writing in the Financial Times in 2016, former Singaporean diplomat and China expert Kishore Mahbubani argued that while China certainly claimed a lot of territory in the South China Sea, it began its reclamation later than some of its neighbors. “Other claimants started it,” Mahbubani wrote. “Vietnam began building an airstrip on Spratly Island in 1976; the Philippines built one on Thitu Island in 1975; and Malaysia started building an airstrip and a resort on Swallow Reef in 1983.” Mahbubani’s point is that while China has undoubtedly been assertive in the South China Sea, it has not been belligerent, which is how Washington likes to paint Beijing’s activity.
While no U.S. officials are outright threatening military action, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee for Asia, says a clash with China in the region is on the horizon. “I would predict there will be a clash within the next three to six months,” Yoho told the Washington Examiner last week. Yoho also discussed FONOPs and said China is trying to disrupt free trade in the region, which is the line most U.S. officials take. But that argument has obvious flaws; why would China, the top trading partner of the U.S. and the World’s number one manufacturer, want to interrupt trade?
The U.S. has other motivations to control the South China Sea, including its vast resources. If China works out deals with its neighbors to extract the natural resources, it leaves no room for U.S. companies. ExxonMobil is currently involved in a project that led to the discovery of significant natural gas deposits off the coast of Vietnam, an area that overlaps China’s claims, and the project may be interrupted due to Chinese pressure. It is not outside the realm of possibilities for the U.S. government to intervene militarily so a U.S. corporation can turn a profit.
In the midst of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and civil unrest, there is probably nothing less significant to the American people than territorial disputes in the South China Sea. If the U.S. leaves tomorrow, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam can work out their issues and band together to negotiate with Beijing. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was ready to kick the U.S. military out of his country until he reversed that decision last month, citing the increased tensions in the South China Sea. Instead of emboldening Duterte in his maritime spat with China, the U.S. should give the president his original wish and withdraw from the Philipines, end the mutual defense treaty, and end the absurd policy of risking war with a nuclear power over reefs and shoals on the other side of the world.
Dave DeCamp is the assistant news editor of Antiwar.com and is based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter @decampdave.