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U.S. commitment in South China Sea anchored in Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision


In word and deed, the United States is reaffirming its commitment to the rule of law in the South China Sea, joining with allies and like-minded partners in rejecting the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) aggressive posturing and illegitimate territorial claims in the vital waterway.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a July 2020 statement strengthening U.S. policy in the region.

Pompeo and his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan restated that message during in-person meetings in October 2020.

“Ministers reiterated that states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement following the four-nation Quad meetings in Tokyo.

The PRC claims much of the sea based on its so-called nine-dash line, an arbitrary demarcation that was rejected by an international tribunal in 2016 and is widely dismissed by other South China Sea countries. Despite that ruling, the PRC has persisted with overt violations of maritime law, including creating artificial features in disputed waters and constructing military installations on the dredged land. Chinese-flagged vessels also are accused of encroaching into other nations’ exclusive economic zones.

Such criticism of PRC activities has been echoed loudly throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. In June 2020, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a statement calling, in part, for nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the South China Sea and stressing the importance of “maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation.”

Although the PRC was not mentioned, observers said the wording was aimed at Beijing and represented the 10-member association’s most-forceful statement yet on the issue. Vietnam, which holds the rotating ASEAN chairmanship, has condemned the People’s Liberation Army’s military exercises in the South China Sea, including deployments to the Paracel Islands, which the PRC seized in the 1970s and over which Vietnam claims sovereignty.

South China Sea claimants, which also include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, have objected to PRC activities ranging from interfering with fishing and natural resource exploration, ramming and sinking vessels, and destroying coral reefs through overfishing and dredging.

Allies and partners, including Australia, Brunei, India, Japan and the U.S., have conducted frequent freedom of navigation operations and military exercises in the South China Sea in support of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. (Pictured: Royal Brunei Navy and U.S. Navy vessels transit the South China Sea during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Brunei in October 2020.)

“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,” Pompeo said in his July 2020 statement.

That resolve has drawn praise from the littoral nations dealing with the ripple effects of the PRC’s aggression.

“We welcome the U.S.’s constructive and responsive contributions to ASEAN’s efforts to maintaining the peace, stability and developments in the South China Sea,” Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said during a September 2020 summit with ASEAN member state representatives and Pompeo, Bloomberg reported.

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