US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has issued a stark warning and clarification of America’s position on Beijing’s territorial ambitions and antagonism in the South China Sea: “The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
For the first time in nearly a century, two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Pacific, the incumbent heavyweight champion – the US, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East – is being circled by the upstart – China, seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the 'Century of humiliation' and ascend to its position as a world leader.
In the Indian Ocean, these two titans continue to jockey for access and primacy over some of the most lucrative sea lines of communication (SLOC) and access to critical markets, strategic resources and of course prestige amid the slowly developing Cold War 2.0 transforming the global and regional balance of power and competition.
By far the most contentious flash point is the heavily travelled South China Sea and the massive land reclamation efforts Beijing has initiated over the past decade to expand its territorial claims and access to resources in the strategically vital SLOC.
Dominating and controlling foreign access to the South China Sea through which approximately US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually serves as a potent strategic deterrent to potential adversaries and a major extension of their already formidable anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.
As part of this, Beijing has launched the growing deployment of force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.
Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.
While the US has made repeated efforts and appeals to Beijing to respect the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order upon which much of the wealth of the Indo-Pacific is built, including its own, it appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
In response, the US announced its ‘pivot’ towards the Indo-Pacific under the former Obama administration in 2013 moving to reassure regional US allies like Australia, Japan and emerging allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that the pre-eminent global power was committed to the enduring freedom and stability of the region.
This has resulted in a series of concurrent flag flying and freedom of navigation operations conducted both by the US Navy as a solo operation and in conjunction with regional partners including Australia and Japan, however, now as the world grapples with the impact of COVID-19 and Beijing continues to flex its muscles, the US has issued its strongest rebuke yet.
The United States will not tolerate bullying
As part of the renewed US efforts to serve as a strategic counter weight to the rising power of China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not only reaffirmed the commitment and position of the world's premier superpower, but also its enduring opposition to Beijing's unilateral territorial claims identified by the 'nine-dash line'.
Secretary Pompeo said in an official State Department communique: "The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today we are strengthening US 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."
Expanding on this, Secretary Pompeo took direct aim at the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the apparent growing belief in Beijing that 'might makes right', particularly as the rising super power seeks to expand its influence and territorial claims:
"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 south-east 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.
Doubling down on this, Secretary Pompeo issued the strongest language yet, stating that Beijing's unilateral claims had "no legal grounds" and lacked a "coherent legal basis" for its claims and this was reinforced in 2016 as part of an arbitral tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention – to which the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a state party.
No legal basis for your claims
While the administration of President Donald Trump has taken repeated aim at the increasing assertiveness, bullying tactics and flagrant disregard for international norms by Beijing – often drawing the ire of China, Secretary Pompeo has redoubled the commitment of the US.
As part of this, Secretary Pompeo has defiantly stated: "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 US 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."
Expanding on these claims, Secretary Pompeo highlighted that the US position is not only a unilateral belief held by the US, but rather one shared by regional partners with interests in the Indo-Pacific and in the interest of broader global security to maintain the status quo.
"The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our south-east Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law," Secretary Pompeo explained.
"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."
This communique will serve to reinforce the position of the United States as the region's leading security partner and further increase tensions between the United States and China as both major powers continue to circle one another.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.