US backs ASEAN on South China Sea, challenges China’s predatory world view

US backs ASEAN on South China Sea, challenges China’s predatory world view

By calling China’s claims to off-shore resources in the South China Sea (SCS) unlawful and championing a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, the United States has reversed its perceived “isolationist” policy and has reaffirmed its strong commitment to its ASEAN partners and key allies Japan and Australia.

The statement on “US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea” by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comes at a time when two US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers - Nimitz and Ronald Reagan - with 120 fighters are exercising in the South China Sea. The two supercarriers are openly challenging the unproven might of PLA Navy by exercising near Paracel Islands off the Vietnam coast and north of the Chinese nuclear submarine base at the Hainan Islands.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s statement is not only a demonstration of the enormous political will of the US to stand by its allies in the Indo-Pacific region but also a reinforcement of the SCS frontline. “The statement has turned the perception that Trump administration was only inward-looking and isolationist on its head. By spelling out its SCS position in black and white, it is a doctrinal recommitment from the American side to this region. It indicates that the US is standing firmly with its allies like the Philippines and Vietnam and recognizing the claims of Indonesia and Malaysia against Chinese bullying in the area,” said a China watcher.

The US statement that Xi Jinping’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century comes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his July 3 Ladakh speech made it clear that there was no space for expansionist regimes and future only belonged to those who believed in development. The Indian position of free and open South China Sea also synergizes with Secretary Pompeo’s statement on Indo-Pacific.

India is expected to expand on its view about the right to free navigation when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits New Delhi later this year as his March trip had to be postponed due to coronavirus global pandemic.

The US statement has revived the Arbitration Tribunal at Hague rejection of China’s SCS claims on July 12, 2016. To remind China of its hubris, Secretary Pompeo has recalled a 2010 statement of Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who told his ASEAN counterparts that it was a fact that China is a big country and others are just small.

The US has openly taken sides with the Philippines on Scarborough Reef, Spratly Islands, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal and called the Chinese claims unlawful and unilateral. The Chinese PLA has virtually declared the SCS as its backyard by contesting claims with ASEAN countries and exploiting the exclusive economic zone by simply bullying these countries militarily into submission. Beijing has also used its closeness with Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar to ensure nothing adverse comes out against China in the so-called Asian tiger forum.

Secretary Pompeo has totally rejected China’s claim over James Shoal near Malaysia and made it clear that the world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.

The US SCS statement has not only challenged China but also given steel injection of support to countries like Japan, Australia, and South Korea, who have decided to look the other way to Beijing’s expansion in the past.