Update (1500ET): The State Department has confirmed the policy change in a press release attributed to Sec Pompeo. Read the whole statement below:
The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today we are strengthening U.S. policy in a vital, contentious part of that region - the South China Sea. We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.
In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes. We share these deep and abiding interests with our many allies and partners who have long endorsed a rules-based international order.
These shared interests have come under unprecedented threat from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with “might makes right."
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 countries and that is just a fact.” The PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.
The PRC has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region. Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its “Nine-Dashed Line” claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009. In a unanimous decision on July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention – to which the PRC is a state party – rejected the PRC’s maritime claims as having no basis in international law. The Tribunal sided squarely with the Philippines, which brought the arbitration case, on almost all claims.
As the United States has previously stated, and as specifically provided in the Convention, the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties. Today we are aligning the U.S. position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the SCS with the Tribunal’s decision. Specifically:
The PRC cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim – including any Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims derived from Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands – vis-a-vis the Philippines in areas that the Tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf.
Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources. In line with the Tribunal’s legally binding decision, the PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal, both of which fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction, nor does Beijing have any territorial or maritime claims generated from these features.
As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’ sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful.
The PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to (or derived from) James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast. James Shoal is often cited in PRC propaganda as the “southernmost territory of China.” International law is clear: An underwater feature like James Shoal cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating maritime zones. James Shoal (roughly 20 meters below the surface) is not and never was PRC territory, nor can Beijing assert any lawful maritime rights from it.
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 to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.
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With the 4th anniversary of a landmark ruling by a UN tribunal fast approaching, the State Department is planning a major policy change that could swiftly lead to even more heightened military tensions between Washington and Beijing in one of the world's most dangerous geopolitical powder kegs: the South China Sea.
Since Trump's inauguration, the Pentagon has stepped up Naval operations in the contested territory, and sent dozens, if not hundreds, of destroyer-class ships and others to engage in "Freedom of Navigation" operations - or "Freeops", for short. Most recently, the US sent two aircraft carriers to the area to hold military exercises...while Chinese ships held exercises of their own nearby.
In a copy of the draft statement reviewed by WSJ, the administration claims that China's refusal to acknowledge the landmark ruling and continue with its claims of supremacy over the area poses "the single greatest threat to freedom of the seas in modern history."
“China’s maritime claims pose the single greatest threat to the freedom of the seas in modern history,” according to a draft seen by Journal. “We cannot afford to re-enter an era where states like China attempt to assert sovereignty over the seas,” the draft said.
China's territorial claims fall within what's known as the nine-dash line, or the "Cow's Tongue", named for its peculiar shape.
At the time of the 2016 ruling, the Obama Administration decided not to get involved, and official set America on a course of non-interference in the area.
That changed almost as soon as Trump was inaugurated, as the president promised to reverse the Obama Administration's policy of cooperation and appeasement in favor of a more resolute stance. The Trump Administration has recently stepped up its criticism of the region's maritime claims. Even the Philippines, which initially brought the case against China to the Hague back in 2013, is no longer pressuring Beijing to obey the ruling, after President Rodrigo Duterte was elected with a mandate to negotiate directly with Beijing.
Since the ruling, China has continued efforts to build artificial islands and fortify them with weaponry, leading to the creation of what Steve Bannon has described as "mobile aircraft carriers". Bannon has repeatedly warned that China is the most pressing threat to American security and economic interests.
While Beijing mostly just whines and complains when the US sends navy ships within 12 miles of the Spratly islands, we suspect the Foreign Ministry's response once Washington confirms the policy change will be even more aggressive. Perhaps the decision might even spur the People's Liberation Army-Navy to speed up their plans for fortification and weaponization, just like the initial ruling appears to have done.