US President Joe Biden on Sunday upheld a Trump-era rejection of nearly all of China’s extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea, reports the AP.
His administration also warned China that any attack on Philippines territory would draw a US response under a mutual defense treaty between Manila and Washington.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea and routinely objects to any action by the US Navy in the region.
Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately US$5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.
The stern message from Secretary of State Antony Blinken came in a statement released ahead of this week’s fifth anniversary of an international tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines, against China’s maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighbouring reefs and shoals. China rejects the ruling.
Ahead of the fourth anniversary last year, the Trump administration came out in favour of the ruling and also said it regarded as illegitimate virtually all Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea outside China’s internationally recognised waters.
Sunday’s statement reaffirms Trump’s position, which had been laid out by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” Blinken said, using language similar to Pompeo’s.
He accused China of continuing to “coerce and intimidate” Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in the critical global waterway.
“The US reaffirms its July 13, 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea,” he said, referring to Pompeo’s original statement. “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defence commitments.”
Although Washington continues to remain neutral in territorial disputes, it has effectively sided with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, all of which oppose Chinese assertions of sovereignty over the sea surrounding contested South China Sea islands, reefs and shoals.
China reacted angrily to the Trump administration’s announcement and is likely to be similarly irritated by the Biden administration’s decision to retain and reinforce it.
Beijing rejected the tribunal’s decision, which it dismissed as a “sham”, and has refused to participate in arbitration proceedings. It continues to defy the decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into territorial spats with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in recent years.
China has sought to solidify its claims to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, leading the US to sail its warships through the region on what it calls freedom of operation missions.
Washington has no claims itself to the waters but has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.
Sunday’s announcement came amid heightened tensions between the US and China over numerous issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, human rights, Chinese policy in Hong Kong and Tibet and trade, that have sent relations plummeting.