China’s pursuit of offshore resources in parts of the South China Sea is “completely illegal,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo said he wanted to point out that the “Beijing intimidation campaign to control” the disputed waters was wrong.
China claims much of the region and has built military bases there on artificial islands.
But Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have overlapping claims on the islands and reefs.
Countries have disputed the territory of the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has grown steadily in recent years.
Beijing claims an area known as the “nine-dash line” and supported its claim with the construction of islands and patrols, thereby expanding its military presence.
Although largely uninhabited, two chains of islands in the region may have reserves of natural resources around them. The sea is also a shipping route and has great fishing spots.
- Why is the South China Sea in dispute?
In a statement released on Monday, Pompeo denounced China’s allegations on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, saying that Beijing had “no legal basis to unilaterally impose its will on the region.”
He said that the United States, which had previously declared that it did not take sides in territorial disputes, had rejected Beijing’s claims regarding the waters off Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
” All [People’s Republic of China] any action to harass the fishing or development of other states’ hydrocarbons in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is illegal, “he said.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. “
Significant risks with seemingly insignificant islands
Zhaoyin Feng, BBC Chinese, Washington DC
Until now, the United States has not taken a side in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Four years after an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s claims in the region had no legal basis, the United States officially announced its position for the first time. But why now?
Last week, China and the United States held naval exercises in the region at the same time – a rare phenomenon indicating rising tensions.
In a broader context, the Trump administration has pledged to reverse what it calls 40 years of political failure with China. Washington recently criticized Beijing on issues ranging from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, to human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and how it handled pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
But it was China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea that spurred the rest of the world to reassess Beijing’s international ambitions.
And the stakes in the region are incredibly high. In these seemingly insignificant island chains and reefs, the risk of military conflict between the two most powerful countries in the world is increasing.
Pompeo said the United States was “with our allies and partners in Southeast Asia in protecting their sovereign rights over offshore resources,” adding that this position was “consistent with their rights and obligations in under international law ”.
What is behind the dispute over the South China Sea?
The sea, home to vital shipping routes, has in recent years become a flashpoint for tensions between China and other nations claiming sovereignty over two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys.
China claims most of the territory, claiming that its rights go back centuries. The region is rich for fishing and is believed to have abundant oil and gas reserves.
The United States has long criticized what it says is the militarization of China by China and regularly makes Beijing angry with the missions of “freedom of navigation”.
In August 2018, a BBC team flew over the disputed islands of the South China Sea in a U.S. military aircraft. In a radio communication, the pilots were warned to leave the area “immediately” in order to “avoid any misunderstanding”.
Months before, China had landed bombers in the disputed territory to participate in exercises on the islands and reefs.
China has previously accused the U.S. Navy of provoking and interfering in regional affairs.