South China Sea: after all its posturing, the US is struggling to build a coalition against China

August 18, 2020 9.19pm AEST


Pak K Lee

Senior Lecturer in Chinese Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

Anisa Heritage

Research Fellow, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

Disclosure statement

Anisa Heritage is affiliated with the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and are solely drawn from open-source published research and data.

Pak K Lee does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

As tensions continue to mount in the waters surrounding the contested islands of the South China Sea, a US navy aircraft carrier conducted exercises in the region on August 17. This came after the Trump administration hardened the US’s longstanding neutral position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

In May 1995, following China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea – which is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan – the US announced that it would take “no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various islands, reefs, atolls and cays in the South China Sea”.

But the US has not remained neutral on how the multiple disputes in the region should be managed or resolved – something we’ve written about in a recent book.

In July 2020, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, took things one step further when he stated that most of China’s claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea were unlawful. Four years after a ruling by the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal, which found China’s claims had no basis in international law, the US has now endorsed that ruling.

Pompeo’s statement was followed a few days later by a speech from the US secretary of defense, Mark Esper, in which he accused China of “brazen disregard of international commitments”. He said China had bullied nations around the Pacific, and that its aggressive tactics in the South China Sea obstructed other countries’ rights to fishing and natural resources.

Two shoals and a reef

Pompeo’s announcement deviated from 25 years of US neutrality over three key issues. First, the US now argues that Mischief Reef and the Second Thomas Shoal, located 130 nautical miles and 105 nautical miles west of the Philippine Palawan Island respectively, are not Chinese but Philippine territories.

Island reef in South China Sea developed by China.

A 2018 photo of Mischief Reef after it was reclaimed and redeveloped by China. Tony Peters/Flickr, CC BY

Second, the announcement amounted to a declaration that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to James Shoal. Although the Chinese government claims James Shoal as its southernmost territory, it is an entirely submerged feature, 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast. Under international law, underwater features cannot be claimed by any state. So the US declared that James Shoal “is not and never was PRC territory”.

And third, Pompeo asserted that China had not put forward a “lawful, coherent maritime claim” and a legal basis for the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea which it uses for the basis of its territorial claims. Under international law, sovereignty extends 12 nautical miles into the seas surrounding a land feature that can sustain human habitation. This means the US also does not accept China’s claims to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the region, far beyond 12 nautical miles surrounding any of the islands, atolls, reefs or rocks.

Still, except for the two shoals and Mischief reef, when it comes to the ownership of the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, the US has stuck to its longstanding position of neutrality and not taken a position.

Why now?

As the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic worsens and Trump’s re-election chances appear to be diminishing, his administration’s backlash against China has accelerated. Some reports suggest hawkish senior officials in the Trump administration, concerned about potential defeat in the November presidential election, are trying to introduce irreversible changes in China-US relations.

The strengthening of the US position on the South China Sea signals an effort to build a coalition of allies and partners to counter and – in Esper’s words “openly compete” with – China. In more substantial terms, the US may be considering deeper defence support to regional states such as the Philippines and Malaysia, which has effectively managed James Shoal, to confront Chinese encroachment there.

To date, only Australia has agreed to pursue “increased and regularised maritime cooperation” with the US in the South China Sea. Despite American pressure on Canberra to participate in operations guaranteeing international freedom of navigation surrounding disputed features such as reefs or islands, Canberra has so far resisted a specific commitment to conduct operations within 12 nautical miles of the features. While Australia rejects China’s illegal maritime claims, it doesn’t want to inflame further tensions over the sensitive sovereignty issue of disputed islands and their surrounding waters.

South-east Asian reticence

In contrast to Australia, south-east Asian states such as the Philippines are more reticent about working with the US to rein in China’s expansionism.

The inherent contradictions between the Trump administration’s America First strategy and the current calls for a coalition against China remain a sticking point. Trump has never attended an East Asia Summit, and his administration’s denigration of regional alliances has reduced American capacity to create a coalition of like-minded partners to support its position in the South China Sea.

Rhetorical posturing against China will not inspire regional allies to rally to America’s side while it trumpets its America First policy. A better US strategy would be to rebuild relations with democratic allies, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Indonesia. But the Trump administration’s attempts to permanently harden US policy towards China, without prior consultation with the rest of the world, will make it harder to build much needed collective resilience against China’s activities in the South China Sea.

Source: The Conversation “South China Sea: after all its posturing, the US is struggling to build a coalition against China”

Note: This is The Conversation’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.

17 Comments on “South China Sea: after all its posturing, the US is struggling to build a coalition against China”

  1. free okin says:

    Usual dumb Asians ignorant of US real intention. Mischief Reef is Chinese listening post of US submarines traversing Bashi Channel.

    Second Thomas Shoal is probably related to Oyster Bay hidden subterranean tunnel US have design for hiding her Ohio subs there in Palawan island.

    James Shoal is where US attempt to hide her Ohios around there near Sabah and Sarawak Sulu Sea to fire Tomahawks at Hainan and artificial islands. That is why China need James Shoal to monitor US submarines.

    This goes for Benham Rise in East PH Sea as well. China need to monitor US Ohios from there.

    Same for Eastern side of Taiwan where US Ohio subs may lurk.

    It is never about Taiwan or PH security but US own interest to Contain China so as to make it harder for Chinese subs to sail within firing range of mainland US. It is called the Monroe Doctrine to keep foreign military assets away from US hemisphere.


  2. Steve says:

    Over 70 countries supported China against the PCA farcical award. What are the chances of US gaining support from ASEAN. US has been prostituting the SCS for ASEAN clients since 2014 to no avail. The only mistress states willing to serve US interest then, are Philippines, Australia and Japan. Fast track 2020, Japan and Australia has retreating to avoid confronting a powerful China. Philippines has booted out US military and pivoted to China. Russia is a de facto alliance of China, booted out US wishful thinking to form an alliance against China. Trump dumb and Pompeo poo has lost all military initiative to form a coalition of the willing to antagonise China. There is no container no coalition of the willing to contain China. It’s time for the Pacific Monkeys to go home and heal America’s woes. Almost 180,000 Covid deaths, economic earthquake, massive business closures, high unemployment, BLM rioting, lawless white house, no US leadership, China may weaponise US treasury bills ….. list too long. US is an absolute mess with record gun purchases, massive gun violence, high murder & shooting cases. America sitting on a time bomb.


    • Peter says:

      We should not rely on Philippines at all because the next President can be very anti-China. Most Filipinos have a deep hatre of China because they believed that they are Westerners and they have nothing in common with China. At the same time most of the Filipinos really love to worship their white slave masters as their own god.


      • Steve says:

        Filipinos has been a clone civilisation of numerous foreign colonial masters. They are proud to be the 51st US state. They don’t even know which part of a Filipino is a filipino. This is their proud heritage. What can China do.? It’s not China’s problem. Of course, any country can change sides for the better or worst. Only they can change themselves, China is fully aware that a change of govt is their so called ‘democratic right’, after all Philippines is a corrupt democracy. Look at what President Duterte is doing to the druglords and drug trafficking. It’s their choice of worship. Geopolitical diplomacy is all that matters.


      • komonsense says:

        Even tho they’re all 4feet tall, look like monkeys (complete with pushed in noses) and stupidity to match?
        It’s very telling about what they’re all about if u compare them to the japs.


  3. komonsense says:

    ALL of those islands are china’s but this despicable deceitful slimey limey cut excuse for an author uses the white vermin’s names for them–in a part of the world in which they have no right to be.


    • Fact says:

      China owns NO islands in the SCS. This is according to the ruling rendered by the world court. And before it is over these same sandbar islands many end up in allied hands


      • johnleecan says:

        You must be hallucinating! What world court? Is that the best lie you can come up with? You must be a student of poo💩 Pompeo!


      • Steve says:

        Aarrgh.! It’s that talk cocking beetle. I have a better ‘world court’ for u that is legally binding sanctioned by the UN general assembly known as the ICJ (international court of arbitration) over an illegal occupation of Chagos Archipelago islands dispute especially the Diego Garcia, where the UK Scoundrels illegally stole the islands, forcefully deported the Chagossians from their homeland, illegally leased Diego Garcia to the united scoundrels of america. The ICJ has given the UK scoundrels till February 2019 to return the illegal occupation of Chagos back to the Chagossians. Insofar, the UK scoundrels refused – go read the text case on the illegal forced deportation of the Chagossians.

        The PCA is not sanctioned by the UN, therefore not binding on its ruling, not supported by over 70 international member states against China. China owns the SCS built islands.


        • Peter says:

          These Indiots do not understand the word “Arbitration” at all. It need at least two consenting parties to go for “Arbitration” but only Philippines attended the ICJ. So, how can a judgement be made when only one party consented to attend???
          ICJ has made a fool of themselves and Philippines has pretended not to understand the word “Arbitration” at all and keep repeating the ICJ rulings. Hehehe, Indiots & Pinoys idiots.


          • Steve says:

            PCA not ICJ – Permanent court of Arbitration not sanction by UN. ICJ International Court of Justice sanctioned by UN.


        • Steve says:

          Correction: ICJ – International Court of Justice (not arbitration.)


      • komonsense says:

        China owns ALL the islands in the scs.
        AND THEN SOME…..
        If your “world court” had ANY authority, then why was their “ruling ” NEVER enforced??? Zip. Zilch , Nada.
        It was nothing more than a pay-per-ruling kangaroo court.
        Your ignorance is truly astounding, little girl.
        Open your appendage filled mouth again and I’ll give u a clitoridectomy.


      • Joseph says:

        ‘World court’? Is there actually such a thing? Who recognizes it? Even the Permanent Court of Arbitration is only a voluntary self-proclaimed proclaimed body that no one actually obey, with America as main and usual target as so many parties have grievances toward the American behaviors all around the world. But just as the American does not recognize the Geneva Convention, the American does not recognize the PCA as well. If America wants China to obey the ruling of the PCA, the American should lead by example. They should obey the rulings of the PCA to them first, there are heaps of the. One of the most famous case is the Disposition of the People of the Chagos Island, which the American forcefully removed to build their Diego Garcia base, and Chagos is not even next to America, the way the SCS is to China. The other famous case is the Timor Leste, which the Australian barrs from having a true defense force. The Australian responded the PCA rulings over resource exploitations on Timor Leste by stationing warship there. So until the Timor Leste could build their own armed force able to hurt the Australian, and backings to ward of Australian military incursion, there is no way the PCA ruling on Timor Leste could be enforced. The fact that only China could provide that kind of supports and protections, explains why the Australian is so wary of China Threat unreasonably. In the case of Kashmir, would India actually obey any PCA ruling over Kashmir? The only PCA ruling that the Indian would accept is if it gives Kashmir to India wholly. India would not accept any division of Kashmir to Pakistan, or let Kashmir be independent. You can count on it. So why would China, or anyone, adhere the PCA?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Simon says:

    Phillipines are one of the first country in line to recieve Covid-19 vaccines from China. America will not be giving any vaccine to any countries, rather it would try and secure vaccine from other countries even by force if it could as we have seen with PPE.
    According to an Australian tabloid China will only give vaccines to countries that recognise China’s claim to the SCS 9 Dash Line. For me that is a no price to pay as countries are only endorsing what China have claimed historically. I would actually go further than that.

    Chinese scientists speaking on behalf of vaccine companies have said not all Chinese will be vaccinated for a numbder of years because there won’t be enough vaccines made but suggest that if several hundred million Chinese in big cities gets vaccinated first it will be enough to prevent serious outbreak. If China is not vaccinating all its own people while still supplying foriegn countries with the vaccines it would greatly improve China’s image. Already Brazil, UAE, Pakistan, Phillipines are known early recipients. Unlike all other countries particularly the West who is saying only after all their own citizens have been offered the vaccine first before it consider supplying to other countries.


    • Simon says:

      A member of SAGE a British government scientific advisory group Sir Mark Walport says people will need to be vaccinated annually like having a flu jab and that the virus will probably be around forever. This gives a clue about the Oxford vaccine in clinical trial as only offer temporary immunity and may not be effective as the virus mutates requiring re-adjusted dose periodically. Oxford vaccine only recently started phase 3 clinical trials abroad against mutated form of Covid-19 and its quite possible the result was not so promising prompting Walport to report doubting a vaccine effectiveness. Britain and the Five Eyes has chosen not to collaborate with China’s vaccine development. Just like 5G its also very likely that any vaccines developed by China that the Five Eyes countries would be at the back of the queue or may never be able to recieve it should it stick to their anti China stance and would have to make do with regular jabs of poorer grade of vaccine that only offer temporary immunity.


      • Steve says:

        Anti-China Business is huge business with the 5 cockeyes, it’s prejudicial and suppressive.
        The cockeyes cannot boycott Chinese vaccines on grounds of national security issue – no backdoor.