South China Sea
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A Chinese navy patrol on Woody Island in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

‘Heightened risk’ of military conflict over South China Sea, observers warn

  • Washington has hardened its position on the strategic waterway, rejecting most of Beijing’s claims
  • China’s foreign ministry hit back, calling the US challenge ‘groundless’ and an effort to sow discord
The risk of military conflict between China and the United States is rising, observers warn, after Washington hardened its position on the South China Sea and rejected most of Beijing’s claims to the resource-rich waterway.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday that the US formally opposed a swathe of Chinese claims to waters within the so-called nine-dash line that encompasses almost all of the South China Sea.
While Washington has no sovereignty claims in the disputed waters, Pompeo said the US also rejected Beijing’s territorial or maritime claims to Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal, in line with a Hague tribunal ruling in 2016.

The US rejected all Chinese claims beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial area around the Spratly Islands, citing in particular the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, Luconia Shoals of Malaysia, the area within Brunei’s exclusive economic zone, and Natuna Besar of Indonesia. The statement also said China’s claims over the submerged feature James Shoal near Malaysia were unlawful.

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo said in the statement.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing would not be allowed “to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire”. Photo: AFP

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the US challenge “groundless” and an effort by Washington to sow discord between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations, which he said would fail.

“China is not seeking to become a maritime empire. China treats its neighbouring nations on an equal basis and exercises the greatest restraint,” Zhao said on Tuesday.

He said the US was the destabilising factor in the South China Sea, as it constantly sent naval vessels to its waters, even though it was not a claimant state.

The administration of Barack Obama opposed Beijing’s claims after the 2016 ruling and pressed China to stop its land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal. But Pompeo’s statement was the first time the US has openly rejected Beijing’s claims in the strategic waterway, through which US$5 trillion in global shipping trade passes annually.

Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow with Hainan-based think tank the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Pompeo’s remarks signalled that the US had chosen a side.

“The US position is very clear,” Chen said. “If we used to say that the US didn’t take sides over sovereignty disputes, now this statement has denied China’s territorial claims, which means that the contest between China and the US over the South China Sea is close to a new Cold War.”

Washington’s latest stance on the South China Sea disputes could worsen an escalating confrontation between the two superpowers, which has spilled over from trade to the coronavirus pandemic, human rights and the national security law in Hong Kong. Early this month, the US sent two aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, and four other warships to the South China Sea for an exercise while China was holding its own drill near the contested Paracel Islands.
The US Navy sent two aircraft carrier groups for an exercise in the South China Sea earlier this month. Photo: EPA-EFE

Zhang Mingliang, a South China Sea expert with Jinan University in Guangzhou, said acrimony between China and the US over the waterway and their increasing military activities in the region had taken tensions “to an unprecedentedly high level”.

“The confrontation and game-playing surrounding the South China Sea is worse than elsewhere,” Zhang said.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Beijing may step up measures to challenge US military activities in the contested waters.

“This could potentially result in a heightened risk of incidents – even if not premeditated, but inadvertent in nature – in the South China Sea that could raise tensions and inflame the situation,” he said.

In the statement, Pompeo said the US “stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources” – a remark Chen from the Hainan think tank said hit a raw nerve for China.

The South China Sea accounts for about 12 per cent of the global fish catch, feeding tens of millions of people in the region. It is also rich in energy resources, with an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. China has territorial disputes over the waterway with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

Tensions over energy exploration have run high since last year, when the Chinese and Vietnamese coastguards were locked in a stand-off for months over oil activities near Vanguard Bank, a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.

China also sent coastguard vessels to waters near Luconia Breakers, a reef cluster at the southern end of the Spratlys, in May last year, as Malaysian oil and gas exploration was under way, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) under the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

In a more unusual situation earlier this year, Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysian navy, coastguard and militia vessels were involved in a stand-off after Malaysian state energy firm Petronas sent a British drillship to operate in two oil and gas blocks that fall within the Malaysia-Vietnam joint defined area as well as China’s nine-dash line, according to the AMTI. That confrontation was not confirmed by any of the countries.

There have also been skirmishes over fishing rights between claimants and Indonesia, a non-claimant whose exclusive economic zone near the Natuna islands overlaps with China’s nine-dash line.

“While China is talking about dialogue and cooperation, disputes over resource exploration remain deep and continue to intensify,” Chen said. “If these disputes escalate into conflict, the US may have an opportunity to step in.”

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: U.s. hard line ‘is raising risk of armed conflict’