National Security

U.S. Refuses to Recognize Chinese Claims in South China Sea

A US marines Amphibious Assault Vehicle and USS Ashland during an amphibious landing exercise at the beach of the Philippine navy training center facing the South China Sea / Getty Images

The White House announced it would no longer recognize most Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Associated Press reported.

Under the jurisdiction of international maritime and commerce law, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated Monday that Beijing’s claims to the resource-rich waters are invalid and subject to redress by the United States and allied countries.

"The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire," Pompeo said. "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."

The announcement comes amid rising tensions in the Sino-American relationship over human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims, an expansive new national security law in Hong Kong, and the exchange of barbs over COVID-19 responses. It also comes three months after a Chinese naval vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the region.

The United States and PRC both engaged in naval exercises last week in the South China Sea. The U.S. operation had the stated purpose of showing "an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability," according to Rear Admiral George Wikoff, who oversaw the naval exercises.

The Trump administration's announcement could prove significant for military and commercial reasons alike. Since at least 2013, the PRC has built over 3,200 acres of artificial islands in the South China Sea to field air, naval, and missile bases, which Pompeo said run afoul of international law. Eighty percent of the world’s commercial tonnage flows through these contested seas, amounting to $5.3 trillion annually, according to one report. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party plans to modernize and expand the Chinese Navy at a rate surpassing nearly all other naval forces.

Beijing's aggressive moves coincide with a more adversarial grand strategy outlined by party chairman Xi Jinping in 2017. "The people’s armed forces have taken solid strides on the path of building a powerful military with Chinese characteristics," Xi said, addressing the CCP’s National Congress. "We have seen a further rise in China’s international influence, ability to inspire, and power to shape."