Under the pretext of ensuring so-called “freedom of navigation”, the US has sent troops and naval vessels and strengthened its military presence in the South China Sea, writes Shannon Ebrahim in the second of three articles unpacking the rising tensions between China and the US.
The US has ratcheted up tension in the South China Sea in terms of its physical military presence there and its rhetoric.
While previously the US had not wanted to take a definitive stance on China’s claims of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly supports the 2016 international ruling that rejected China’s sovereignty claims over the area.
On July 13, Pompeo issued a statement saying many of China’s claims in the South China Sea have no basis in international law, and that the award of arbitration case is legally binding on China and the Philippines.
The irony is that the US has not ratified the treaty which the 2016 court ruling is based on – the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The strategic significance of the series of islands, shoals and reefs of the South China Sea cannot be overstated. Whoever controls the South China Sea controls the main commercial and navigation gateway to East Asia.
A third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea, and the waters contain 12% of the world’s fisheries. There are also untapped reserves of gas and oil in the waters.
Under the pretext of ensuring so-called “freedom of navigation”, the US has sent troops and naval vessels and strengthened its military presence in the South China Sea.
In what China views as provocative acts, the US frequently sends its naval vessels and aircraft close to China’s islands and reefs, and stays for lengthy periods in their waters.
It is hard to imagine China doing the same to the US – positioning its naval vessels off the coast of Florida to ensure “freedom of navigation” in the Caribbean.
China has exercised strategic patience with the increasing US military presence in its backyard, but has also taken steps to mark its claims over the islands of the South China Sea, establishing military airstrips and anti-ship missiles on some of them.
China has also reached out to neighbouring countries to resolve their territorial tension.
Even though the Philippines had launched an international suit against China over its territorial claims, China has since signed a memorandum of understanding with that country to jointly explore oil and gas in the disputed areas.
China maintains that it has exercised jurisdiction over the islands of the South China Sea for thousands of years.
After World War II, China maintains that it recaptured the Nansha Islands from Japan, and in 1948 the Chinese government published the dotted line identifying its sovereignty over the area, which was not disputed at the time.
The heavy American military presence in the South China Sea under both Democrat and Republican administrations has formed part of a containment strategy that would see China encircled and weakened in its own sphere of influence.
The US views China as a threat to its global hegemony, and so its strategy in the South China Sea is not to resolve disputes peacefully, but to limit China’s influence.
Pompeo’s latest veiled threats can be seen as beating the drums of war, when he said: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”
US statements on this matter are nothing less than a threat to international peace and security.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.