Aircraft carriers the USS Ronald Reagan (bottom) and USS Nimitz were both recently deployed for drills in the South China Sea. Image: Handout/US Navy

MANILA – In a clear and well-orchestrated escalation, the US State Department has effectively rejected nearly all of China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea, a law-based provocation that threatens to spike tensions in the already hotly contested maritime area.

The statement comes soon after the US conducted its first dual aircraft carrier exercises in the South China Sea in six years, as the Pentagon ramps up its military presence to deter China’s rising assertiveness in the waters.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the “world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire” and that 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’s statement comes in the wider context of ramped up US pressure on China that has now extended well beyond the initial trade war and is now evolving into what some analysts see as a new Cold War. America’s unprecedented statement against China’s maritime moves marks a provocative new chapter in their South China Sea showdown.

The surprise announcement marks a new phase of the two superpowers’ maritime showdown and portends a possible more forceful Pentagon intervention if China moves in future on disputed land features in the sea claimed by Southeast Asian nations, including Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) ally the Philippines.

China’s Foreign Ministry struck back by accusing the US of “deliberately distorting the facts and international law” It said the US “exaggerates the situation in the region” in order to “sow discord between China and other littoral countries.”

The Chinese statement maintained that the South China Sea situation “is peaceful and stable and is still improving” and decried the US for “flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.” It added: “China is firmly opposed to it.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dropped the gauntlet on China in South China Sea. Photo: AFP/Eric Baradat

In his statement, Pompeo invoked the 2016 award handed down by an arbitral tribunal at The Hague that ruled in favor of the Philippines over China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The decision, which China has ignored, questioned the legal basis of  Beijing’s expansive claims under its nine-dash line that lays claim to most of the sea. The arbitral award, handed down four years ago on July 12, “rejected (China’s) maritime claims as having no basis in international law.”

The US diplomatic chief reminded China that the “arbitral tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement countered that Washington has not yet ratified the UNCLOS.

Pompeo’s statement echoed America’s earlier note verbale made to the United Nations in June. But his statement is perhaps most consequential in its de facto recognition of Southeast Asian nations’ claims to certain China-occupied land features in the area, a major departure from Washington’s previous studious avoidance of taking sides in the disputes.

In a shot across China’s bow, Pompeo specifically rejected China’s claim over land features such as the Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and the Mischief Reef, all of which fall within “areas that the tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ (exclusive economic zone) or on its continental shelf.”

The US now openly sides with the Philippines’ claim over Mischief Reef, which is currently occupied and reclaimed by China, and Second Thomas Shoal, which is currently defended by a Philippine marine detachment atop a grounded vessel, since “both of which fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

The US also effectively reaffirmed the Philippines’ claim over the Scarborough Shoal, which has been under China’s de facto control since a months-long 2012 naval standoff. Pompeo noted the feature, which would be crucial to China’s believed ambition to establish an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the sea, lies in “the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf.”

Aside from its mutual defense treaty ally in the Philippines, the US now also effectively supports the claims of other regional partners, including Vietnam, Malaysia and even Indonesia amid recent rising tensions with China off the energy-rich Natuna islands.

In its statement, the US said that it “rejects any [Chinese] maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia).”

It also effectively reaffirmed Malaysia’s claim over the China-claimed James Shoal, since it’s “an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast,” the US statement said.

The US is now also directly challenging China’s “historic rights” claims over energy and fishery resources across the South China Sea basin and beyond, particularly within Indonesia’s EEZ in the North Natuna Sea.

“Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters — or to carry out such activities unilaterally — is unlawful,” Pompeo added in his statement.

That will likely be music to the ears of China’s smaller neighbors, most of which have been reluctant to challenge Beijing independently and have had little success deterring it through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a joint military exercise in the South China Sea in April 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Far from a cynical election ploy to shore up Trump’s anti-China credentials ahead of presidential elections in November, America’s latest statements represent a natural progression in Washington’s increasingly hawkish policies towards Beijing.

In recent years, the US has upgraded its security cooperation with new partners such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, while maintaining its commitment to traditional allies like the Philippines.

Pompeo’s statement also has significant operational implications, especially if China were to reclaim and militarize the Scarborough Shoal or forcibly evict Philippine troops from Second Thomas Shoal and other land features now under Manila’s control.

The likelihood of a US armed intervention to protect Philippines’ assets and troops in the disputed areas in the scenario of a Chinese attack has now arguably increased.

Last March, Pompeo became the first-ever top American envoy to publicly announce the parameters of the Philippine-US alliance vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes.

Previous US administrations consistently equivocated on the treaty’s precise extent – both in terms of geographic scope and contingencies – of America’s commitment to come to its Southeast Asian ally’s defense in the event of a conflict with a third party, namely China.

Up until the Barack Obama administration, American governments, eager to avoid confrontation with China, also equivocated on the validity of the Philippines’ claims to Chinese-controlled features such as the Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef. 

In contrast, Pompeo has made it clear that the treaty covers any hostile action by a third party against Philippine troops, vessels and aircrafts, including in the South China Sea.

“We have your back,” Pompeo said during a news briefing last year alongside his Filipino counterpart, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

A Philippine naval officer stands guard during the arrival of American missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon before US-Philippine joint naval military exercises in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis/Getty Images

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty,” the US diplomatic chief added.

Months later, when a Chinese militia vessel sunk a Filipino fishing boat in the contested Reed Bank US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim upped the ante by declaring the MDT could cover even gray zone attacks launched by hostile rivals.

“Any armed attack, I would think that would include government-sanctioned militias,” he added, reiterating America’s commitment to upgrade its alliance with the Philippines to ensure “we will live up to those obligations,” the US ambassador said in comments that have new significance in light of Pompeo’s announcement.