Distorting facts and international law, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted on July 13 that “China’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
His remarks send a signal to the world that the U.S. has abandoned its neutral stand on maritime issues in favor of direct interference. This is a dangerous development.
Pompeo said it was not until 2009 that China formally announced its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea, which in his view provides no legal basis for China’s maritime claims. But his argument is far from the truth.
Let’s have a look at China’s historical connection with the South China Sea. As early as 2,000 years ago, the Chinese in the Han Dynasty began sailing across the sea, discovering and naming islands and reefs. Numerous unearthed artifacts confirm that the sea appears on Chinese maps dating to the Han Dynasty. Since the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220), successive Chinese governments have exercised jurisdiction over the South China Sea. In other words, China is the first country in the world to discover, name and exercise effective jurisdiction over its islands and reefs. According to international law, they naturally belong to China.
During World War II, the sea was occupied by Japan, but afterward China recovered the islands and reefs that had been illegally occupied and resumed the exercise of sovereignty under the Cairo Declaration signed by the heads of state of China, the United States and the United Kingdom. Then in February 1948, the government of the Republic of China announced the nine-dash line to the international community. No country raised an objection.
In the 1970s, rich oil and natural gas resources were discovered in the seabed. China, however, was in the grip of the so-called Cultural Revolution and devoted little energy to the administration of the waters. Some neighboring countries seized the opportunity to occupy islands and reefs, and subsequently exploited them for oil and airstrips. This is the origin of the South China Sea issue.
Successive U.S. administrations took no public position on territorial disputes. In the past, America honored this commitment when disputes and conflicts arose between China and countries bordering the sea, such as the Battle of the Xisha Islands (1974) and the Chigua Reef Skirmish with Vietnam (1988), the Meiji Reef dispute (1995) and the Huangyan Island standoff with the Philippines (2010). In July 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advanced the idea of “returning to the Asia-Pacific,” and the State Department released a policy paper on the South China Sea in 2014. It didn’t deny China’s territorial claims.
Pompeo’s statement was a complete reversal of the U.S. government’s coherent South China Sea policy. It also violates international rules that any party not directly concerned should not engage in matters of sovereignty and maritime rights. Even worse, it set a bad precedent for high-profile U.S. involvement.
Behind the abandonment of its formerly neutral position is the Trump administration’s ongoing strategy of exerting pressure on China on all fronts. Seeing China as its main competitor and threat, the United States has spared no effort to isolate it politically and diplomatically and sanction it economically, as part of its decoupling agenda.
U.S. interference in South China Sea disputes is intended to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN countries. In recent years, those countries have gained tangible benefits from cooperation with China, and have now collectively surpassed the United States and the European Union as China’s largest trading partner. The Belt and Road Initiative promises to deliver the regional bloc even more development opportunities, and China’s efforts to build neighborly and friendly relations removes a sense of insecurity among ASEAN countries.
But the more closely China and ASEAN work together, the more intolerant the U.S. becomes. Behind Pompeo’s South China Sea statement is a clear intent to sow discord between China and ASEAN and undermine peace and stability in the region, while the United States takes advantage of the worsening situation.
In addition, President Donald Trump faces multiple pressing problems at home. As of July 18, the U.S. had led the world in the number of coronavirus cases (3.6 million) and deaths (140,000). The unemployed population surpassed 50 million and continued to grow. Anti-racism protests have gained momentum around the country. And the public is increasingly dissatisfied with the government. Many opinion polls show Trump’s approval rating startlingly low, as many as 14 percentage points lower than Democrat Joe Biden. That figure bodes ill for the incumbent president.
In response, he has tried some of his old tricks, from stirring up trouble and provoking confrontation on the world stage and shifting responsibility for domestic problems to divert the attention of the American people. In fact, Pompeo’s statement is the products of Trump’s approach.
The White House expected to see the statement lead to satisfactory results, but things did not go as it hoped. In his phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on July 14, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro L. Locsin said that contentious maritime issues are not the sum total of China-Philippines relations and that they shouldn’t and won’t influence broad bilateral relations. In addition, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thai Prime Minister Bayu spoke individually by phone with President Xi Jinping, saying that they will work with China to maintain peace in the region.
Today, consultations between China and ASEAN on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea are progressing smoothly and a second round of review of the draft text has begun, with both sides hoping to sign it as soon as possible. Stable peace in the South China Sea is crucial to countries in the region, and unwarranted intervention by the United States will only exacerbate regional tensions.
Pompeo takes every opportunity to talk tough on China, in most cases hysterically spurred by the institutional ethos of the CIA: “We lie, we cheat, we steal.”
It is impossible to persuade him to change his stance on China, but it is worth the effort to tell him that as he is the chief diplomat of the United States, he should be careful with what he says and does concerning China-U.S. relations.