WASHINGTON — On Sunday, the Biden administration backed the Trump administration’s rejection of almost all of China’s major territorial claims in the South China Sea. The administration also warned China that any attack on the Philippines in the hotspot region would trigger a mutual defense treaty reaction from the United States.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered the strong warning in a statement issued ahead of the fifth anniversary of an international tribunal judgment in favor of the Philippines over China’s territorial claims in the Spratly Islands and surrounding reefs and shoals. China opposes the decision.
Last year, the Trump administration came out in support of the judgment but also stated that it considered nearly all Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea outside of China’s internationally recognized waters to be illegal. The statement released on Sunday reinforces Trump’s position, which was set out by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime system more threatened than in the South China Sea,” he added “Blinken spoke in a tone that was similar to Pompeo’s. China, he claimed, was continuing to do so “to employ coercion and intimidation against Southeast Asian coastline governments, jeopardizing freedom of navigation in this vital global corridor.”
He stated, referring to Pompeo’s original comments, that “the United States maintains its July 13, 2020 stance regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea.” “We further reiterate that an armed strike in the South China Sea against Philippine military troops, public vessels, or aircraft would trigger US mutual defense commitments.”
The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines requires both nations to come to each other’s assistance in the event of an attack.
Prior to Pompeo’s remarks, US policy had been to urge on peaceful resolution of maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbors through UN-backed arbitration. The change did not apply to disagreements over land features above sea level that are deemed “territorial” in character.
Although the US claims neutrality in territorial disputes, it has effectively sided with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, all of whom reject Chinese claims to marine regions encompassing disputed South China Sea islands, reefs, and shoals.
China responded strongly to the Trump administration’s statement, and the Biden administration’s choice to keep and enhance it is sure to enrage China much more.
“We urge on (China) to follow international law, stop acting provocatively, and take actions to reassure the international community that it is committed to a rules-based maritime system that respects the rights of all countries, big and small,” Blinken said in a statement.
China has denounced the tribunal’s ruling as a “sham” and has refused to engage in the arbitration procedures. It has continued to disobey the ruling by engaging in aggressive behavior that has resulted in territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia in recent years.
The declaration occurred amid heightened tensions between the US and China over a number of topics, including the coronavirus epidemic, human rights, Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Tibet, and trade, as did the previous year’s statement.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea and frequently opposes any military action by the United States in the area. Five additional countries claim all or part of the sea, which is used to ship $5 trillion worth of commodities every year.
China has tried to strengthen its maritime claims by constructing military outposts on coral atolls, prompting the United States to send warships through the region on so-called freedom of operation operations. Although the US does not claim the seas, it has sent warships and planes to monitor and encourage freedom of movement and overflight in the major waterway for decades.