Monday the U.S. State Department rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea saying the PRC had no rights to any territory beyond 12-nautical mile territorial limit. Here’s a portion of Sec. Pompeo’s press statement:
As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’ sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful…
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. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.
Today a U.S. Navy destroyer put those words into action by conducting a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea.
A day after the White House announced it would reject nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, the U.S. warship Ralph Johnson steamed through the contested waters Tuesday, according to U.S. 7th Fleet officials.
The guided-missile destroyer navigated near the Spratly Islands, a network of islands and man-made atolls created by Beijing in recent years and militarily fortified to bolster China’s claims that such territory is theirs, not international waters.
There are satellite photos of the Spratly Islands, many of which have been heavily modified by China including the addition of weapons and runways for aircraft.
Earlier this month two U.S. carrier strike groups operated in the same region. Chinese state media published photos of anti-carrier missiles and said these carriers groups were only allowed to operate “at the pleasure” of the Chinese army:
China has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26 "aircraft carrier killer" #missiles. South China Sea is fully within grasp of the #PLA; any US #aircraftcarrier movement in the region is at the pleasure of PLA: analysts. https://t.co/X5L0foka6Q pic.twitter.com/rEPjp9gqAZ
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) July 4, 2020
Here was the Navy’s response:
And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. #USSNimitz & #USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated #AtOurDiscretion https://t.co/QGTggRjOul
— Navy Chief of Information (@chinfo) July 5, 2020
After the announcement from Sec. Pompeo yesterday, China accused the U.S. of “inciting confrontation.”
“The United States is not a country directly involved in the disputes. However, it has kept interfering in the issue,” the Chinese Embassy in Washington said on its website. “Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”
China has been trying to expand its territory in the South China Sea, along the border with India and effectively in its control over Hong Kong. It’s a good thing that people around the world are standing up to these efforts. Here’s a Reuters report which gives a good background on the dispute.
Update: Some additional background from Vox showing how China built these islands. (Note this clip was published in 2017.)