The US South China Sea Policy Statement: Little New and Laced With Hypocrisy

On 13 July US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a policy statement on the South China Sea. Although it was anticipated to be ‘new’, it added little to the US position and was laced with hypocrisy.

Further, despite being wrapped in the trappings of upholding the principles of international law, the statement was clearly politically motivated.

Nevertheless, US media and analysts hyped the statement. They said it “upped the ante” ; was an ‘escalation’, and ’ hardened’ the US position. According to South China Sea ‘expert’ Gregory Poling it was pretty significant’ and a “big blow diplomatically”. As usual, these shoot from the lip pundits jumped to conclusions without carefully analyzing the history, context, content and consequences of the statement.

Some even thought the ‘new’ policy would cross a ‘red line’ like backing China’s rivals’ claims to sovereignty over disputed high tide features. There was really little new therein. As the statement itself acknowledged “as the U.S. has previously stated, and as specifically provided in the [UN Law of the Sea] Convention (UNCLOS), the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties.” The U.S. has long publicly supported the 2016 international arbitration panel ruling against China that contains most of the specifics in the ‘new’ US policy.

What is ‘new’ is the statement’s explicit reiteration of some of the rulings’ specifics and application of its conclusions to other areas in the South China Sea. It stated that China’s harassment of other states’ fishing and “offshore energy development within those [China claimed] areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources.” “The PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal.” It then applies the panel’s conclusion that China’s 9-dash line historical claim is unlawful to declare that the U.S. rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank, Luconia Shoals, waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar .” These details of the US-supported decision are either incorporated in or logical extensions of it and well known to specialists.

The impact of the statement is further diluted by its hypocrisy. Pompeo piously proclaimed that the U.S. “opposes any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes” or to “make might right”. But it comes on the heels of the first US deployment to the South China Sea since 2014 of two its most iconic symbols of power – two aircraft carrier strike groups –as well as a nuclear-capable bomber operating together. As US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said, the US is aggressively building “the capabilities that we need to deter China from committing to a major confrontation” in the South China Sea.

Also hypocritical is the statement’s claim to be in support of adherence to international law. The U.S. is the lone developed country that has not ratified the very Convention (UNCLOS) it claims to be the legal standard. The day after its statement it launched yet another threat of use of force to back up its legal position on “freedom of navigation”.

While the statement criticized China for not adhering to the arbitration panel’s legally binding decision, it is hardly a paragon of virtue in such matters. When in 1986 when the International Court of Justice determined that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbours, the U.S. refused to abide by the legally binding decision.

More specific to the arbitration panel’s decision that the US claims to support, Pompeo pompously points out that the arbitration decision held that all the Spratlys are only legal rocks that cannot generate 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or continental shelves. But he neglected to mention that this precedent calls into question many U.S. EEZ claims in the Pacific including from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Moreover, as the U.S. singles out and bashes China for its non-conformity with what it declares to be the international order, it neglects to call out similar ‘violations’ by its ‘allies and partners’ that it is purportedly defending. The claims by the Philippines to a large swath of features and sea as Kalayaan, and that of Malaysia to various “rocks”, because they lie on its claimed continental shelf, are not supported by UNCLOS.

The political core of the statement is the declaration that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources­. ­“ The U.S. seems to be using the territorial and maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian claimants as an opportunity and excuse to increase its military presence there. In doing so it hopes to encourage them to ‘stand up’ to China and thus irrevocably draw some Southeast Asian states to its side.

Although the statement uses such high sounding rhetoric in support of Southeast Asian countries, the question remains as to what the U.S. can and will do to enforce the specifics of its policy statement. Equally important is the question of whether or not China’s rival claimants would welcome US military intervention. When it appeared that China was attempting to intimidate a drillship contracted by Malaysia to drill in its EEZ, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral John Aquilino used similar rhetoric in declaring that American forces will “stand with regional friends and partners to resist coercion _ _”.

However, it appears that the US sent its warships without invitation—and perhaps they were not even wanted. On the other hand, implementing the specifics of the policy could have hidden dangers beyond directly confronting China at a time and place of the US’s choosing. As former US National Security Council official Michael Green warned, “I just hope [the policy statement] does not tempt smaller states to do things that could provoke Beijing and we would then own.”

In sum, the US policy statement adds little new to the U.S. position. But it does reveal US hypocrisy and its Machiavellian political machinations. As such, it and the US ‘full-court press’ in the South China Sea will likely invite a response from China and increase tensions – perhaps as intended.

A version of this piece first appeared in the Asia Times. 

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Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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