By Philip J. Heijmans and Andreo Calonzo (Bloomberg) — The Trump administration’s move to brand most of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea a violation of international law doesn’t mean much on its own: China has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the 2016 tribunal ruling that the U.S. finally just endorsed.
But analysts fear it could lead to a miscalculation at sea if it prompts the Communist Party to become more aggressive in asserting its claims, both to rebuff the U.S. and to deter other claimants in Southeast Asia to avoid taking action. China’s campaign to build artificial structures intensified after the Obama administration announced a “pivot” to Asia in 2011.
“This may not necessarily change the texture of what the U.S. military is already doing in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “The concern we have is the Chinese may decide to step up their challenge against these U.S. activities in the SCS, thus increasing the risk of incidents.”
While the U.S. and China are sparring on everything from trade to Covid-19 to Hong Kong, the South China Sea remains the most likely spot for the two powers to have their warships and fighter jets actually collide. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he wants to deploy more U.S. forces to confront China, and the U.S. Navy appears to be stepping up freedom of navigation operations challenging Beijing’s territorial claims. Earlier this month two U.S. aircraft carriers conducted exercises in the South China Sea.
“The Trump administration is trying to find all the nails they can to hammer into the coffin,” said Zhu Feng, executive dean of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University. “On the one hand it’s exploiting the China factor for the elections, but in general the U.S. has fundamentally changed its attitude towards China.”
?U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s statement on Monday denouncing what he called a “completely unlawful” campaign by China over fish and energy deposits across most of the sea, which is vital for global trade and has territorial disputes involving six governments, marked the fourth anniversary of a ruling by a United Nations tribunal in favor of the Philippines against Beijing. China has said the tribunal had no jurisdiction, as Beijing had earlier said it wouldn’t abide by dispute settlement mechanisms for under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea, known as Unclos.
“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.”
China immediately fired back, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Tuesday rejecting Pompeo’s statement and accusing the U.S. of “doing all it can to stir up trouble in the South China Sea and drive a wedge between regional countries and China.” Another spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said China has no working oil rigs in disputed areas of the South China Sea and said the country is committed to upholding freedom of navigation and overflight.
The risk of an accident in the South China Sea leading to a larger standoff has risen “as de-escalation will be complicated by the deteriorating relationship,” the Eurasia Group said in an analysis published Tuesday. It also said that China might be more likely to declare an air defense identification zone over the waters, “which would attempt to force international commercial and military jets to recognize China’s sovereignty.”
“The U.S. and China do not want to have an open conflict or a war over this issue, but the problem is on the ground,” said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. “ If there is no effective communication between top leaders on the issue, it is easy for the situation to get out of control.”
The South China Sea encompasses an area roughly the size of India, and China claims more than 80% of the waters. So far, Beijing has reclaimed some 3,200 acres (1,290 hectares) of land on seven reefs or rocks in the Spratly archipelago, constructing ports, lighthouses and runways. It has installed missile batteries and other military equipment.
The U.S. stance marks the first time it has explicitly endorsed the substance of the tribunal ruling and declared that China has no right whatsoever to waters and seabed off its neighbors’ coasts, according to Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington. That should lead to stronger objections to China’s moves to intimidate on fishing and oil and gas drilling, he said, as well as adding pressure on other countries to speak up more.
“It’s a bigger deal than it might seem at first,” he said. “The U.S. is still neutral on who ultimately owns which disputed island, but it’s now firmly on the side of the Southeast Asians when it comes to most of the waters.”
Still, at least one key claimant didn’t see things spinning out of control. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, whose country has moved closer to China in recent years, said on Twitter that the world’s biggest economies still needed each other to recover following the global pandemic.
The U.S. move would only be effective if it follows up with claimant states in the region to find ways to exert more pressure against China, Murray Hiebert, BowerGroupAsia’s head of research and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Southeast Asia Program, said during a virtual briefing on the South China Sea.
“It’s stronger than what was said before, but one of the problems we have with the current administration is they make very strong statements on an issue and disappear for months at a time,” he said. “That means it’s really not that effective.”
–With assistance from Iain Marlow, Cecilia Yap, Thomas Kutty Abraham, Arys Aditya, Jason Scott, Samson Ellis and Lucille Liu.
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