The United States has announced a formal rejection of many Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Monday, July 13, described the rebuff as a "strengthening of U.S. policy," asserting that, "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."

"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," Pompeo said in a statement.

One expert, Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN that the statement is "pretty significant."

"What the US basically said is that we are going to remain neutral on questions of who owns what island or rock in the South China Sea, but we're no longer going to keep quiet on China's illegal claims to the waters," CNN quoted Poling, as saying.

"It lets the U.S. very clearly call out China's activities as illegal, not just destabilizing or unhelpful, but to say this is illegal. That helps partners like Vietnam and the Philippines, and it's going to put pressure on other countries, the Europeans for instance, to get off the fence and say something themselves," he said during the interview with CNN.

Pompeo commented on the 2016 ruling by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague that went in favor of the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) over China’s claims based on the "Nine-Dash Line" it uses to claim the bulk of the South China Sea.

He said, "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."

His statement mentioned specific areas where China had intruded into the South China Sea waters. They include:

  • Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands within the Philippines EEZ
  • Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal also under Philippine jurisdiction
  • James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China's coast
  • The waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei's EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia)

Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told CNN that, "The U.S. is professing support for these countries' rights in those areas. Now, if the US wants to come to support an ally or partner in the South China Sea which is getting pushed around by China, now it has the legal justification to say China's actions are illegal in our view... even though Pompeo has previously indicated these are coercive actions by the Chinese, he probably would not have said they are illegal, now he can."

The wait for any U.S. support to ward off China’s bullying would not take long to arrive, especially with the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, two USA Navy aircraft carriers, already stationed in the South China Sea. They are likely monitoring any Chinese naval moves and activities on China’s recently built artificial islands in the disputed zones.

Map showing disputed claims in the South China Sea.
Map showing disputed claims in the South China Sea. AFP / John SAEKI