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Pompeo affirms American policy on the WPS; other ASEAN, allied countries take stands

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

Bhenjar Toor


The United States Secretary of State Michael Richard Pompeo confirmed the strongly-worded statements issued by the US State Department on Chinese claims in the South China Sea, including those in the West Philippine Sea.


In a Press Conference on July 15 after issuing an official statement, Pompeo insisted that the US has “made (its) policy on the South China Sea crystal clear,” thus reinforcing initial statements released earlier that the US considers almost all Chinese claims in the South China Sea as illegal and will not hesitate to support countries fighting the belligerent Asian Power for their territorial rights.


Among the countries that have taken a strong stance against China despite its limited military capacity was the Philippines. The Philippines filed its case in January 2013 following a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippines ships at Scarborough Shoal in April 2012.

Since the initiation of the arbitration case, China has conducted several massive reclamation projects to turn submerged reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military structures and equipment.


China’s reclamation activities have alarmed other Southeast Asian nations, particularly Vietnam, that also have competing claims in the South China Sea.


On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea) and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid giving then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III vindication in his strong stance against the Chin that has shown renewed aggression on insisting on their territorial claims.


The Tribunal also said that China has violated Philippine sovereign rights.


“Having found that certain areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, the Tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone,” the tribunal statement said.


But despite the historic win, incumbent Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shelved the historic win by moving the country away from its traditional ally, the Unites State, and towards a warm relationship with China, which was seen as a waste of a crucial legal victory that could have cemented the Philippine claim in the Spratlys and other islands in the West Philippine Sea albeit it cannot be enforced by means of arms.


But Duterte, having observed how the Chinese incursions continue despite the pandemic, appears to have made several recent policy reversals as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., issued strong statements against the continued Chinese activities. These developments came at the heels of Chinese-Indian border conflicts that actually resulted in actual hand combats resulting in injuries to soldiers manning the border areas for both parties.


With this increase in anti-Chinese sentiments, there were already recommendations from some sectors as India has been watching China venture into the Indian Ocean. New Delhi has since then approved the construction of 56 warships and six submarines, all part of a 10-year plan. Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba revealed in several press briefings that this would make the Indian navy among the top three most powerful navies in the world, although it is regarded among the top five at this time. This naval expansion is seen by many as a warning against Chinese incursions, which was often heard from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who used to say the line that no one should try to have some misadventure with India.


Recently, calls to cut off Chinese shipping routes have gained more noise and if it does happen, which some would think possible similar to the recent skirmishes in a ridge of the mountains in Ladakh, a desolate high-altitude plateau in Northeast Kashmir. The Kashmir areas are considered by the Chinese government as a possible alternative to the trade routes by sea although it may not be sufficient to supply the entire country with enough oil and other requirements to sustain its rampaging economy.


According to estimates made by China Power, an electric power company, a week-long closure of the Strait of Malacca would result in an estimated $64.5 million in additional shipping costs.


In another study, the S. Rajaratnan School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, a different route such as the Lombok - Makassar Straits would additionally cost between US$84 billion and US$250 billion per year compared to the Strait of Malacca should India make use of its naval capabilities to disrupt Chinese shipping activities in the strait connecting the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.


Should India decide to take the offensive especially after it has been in a more aggressive border conflict highlighted by a recent deadly brawl, this will add to China's woes as the United States (US) Secretary of State Michael Richard Pompeo has pledged to support countries in conflict with the Communist state.


To add to the mounting pressures, Australia has also joined the US in its rejection of China’s expansive maritime claims based on the 1982 United Nations Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). With both nations also citing the Tribunal ruling favoring the Philippines’ claims, it considers Chinese claims unlawful in the South China Sea.


These mounting pressures clearly show that there is a deepening rift between China and its Asian neighbors at a time when the pandemic is still raging and not yet under total control. With the Philippines backflipping from its plan to abrogate the US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finally taking a more unified stance with its affirmation of the 1982 UNCLOS.


With the US, Australia, and other countries in the region finally putting their stance together against China in a bid to derail it from turning the the South China Sea into its “maritime empire,” everyone is now awaiting new developments and whether the Asian Power will consider the arbitral tribunal’s decision as final and legally binding.


For retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, one of the legal luminaries who presented and defended the Philippine case in the Tribunal, it becomes a natural strategic partnership with the US and other naval powers and can respond more concretely against Chinese aggression by joining the outside naval powers in their freedom of navigation and overflight operations in their exclusive economic zones and in the high seas.


Meanwhile, many expect a Chinese retaliation against the US not just on the issue of the South China Sea but also on the other recent developments wherein escalation of the Sino-American conflict can lead to more instability and uncertainty.


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