WSJ/HONG KONG—The U.S. plans to formally oppose a swath of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, according to people familiar with the matter, as Washington takes a harder line against Beijing’s efforts to assert control over the strategic waters.
While Washington has previously said it sees Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims over most of the South China Sea as unlawful, the State Department is preparing to issue a position paper that officially rejects specific Chinese claims for the first time, the people said.
Such a gesture departs from past U.S. practice of not taking sides on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the people said.
The paper could be issued this week, the people said, just after the fourth anniversary of a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that found no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to historic and economic rights in most of the South China Sea.
Recently, the Trump administration has criticized Beijing for asserting “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea while ramping up naval operations to challenge those claims This month, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to participate in one of its largest naval exercises in recent years in the South China Sea—at the same time that China was holding drills in the area.
The State Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
China has repeatedly rejected the ruling, issued by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague following a legal challenge brought by the Philippines in 2013. Beijing didn’t take part in the tribunal, which it has insisted had no jurisdiction on the matter. Instead, China continued efforts to build artificial islands around disputed South China Sea features and fortify them with weaponry.
At the time of the ruling, the Obama administration called on relevant parties to respect it while stating that the U.S. doesn’t take sides on specific territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Washington has long insisted that it has an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the area.
In the paper, the U.S. would state that “China’s maritime claims pose the single greatest threat to the freedom of the seas in modern history,” according to a draft seen by The Wall Street Journal. “We cannot afford to re-enter an era where states like China attempt to assert sovereignty over the seas,” the draft said.
The U.S. rejects a number of Chinese claims to certain areas and features in the South China Sea that are also claimed by Southeast Asian countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to the draft.
Washington also states its view that Chinese efforts to “harass Southeast Asian fishing or hydrocarbon development, or to unilaterally undertake such activities on its own, in these areas, are unlawful,” according to the draft.
The U.S. is not a party of the UN Law of the Sea treaty that sets out a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. Despite that, the State Department noted that China and its neighbors, including the Philippines, are parties to the treaty and should respect the decision.
The United States has no claims to the waters but has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea and routinely objects to any action by the U.S. military in the region. Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.
China has sought to shore up its claim to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, leading the U.S. to sail warships through the region in what it calls freedom of operation missions. More here.