In the recently released U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea, Washington continues to walk a delicate balance between supporting its allies and partners in the region and avoiding entanglement in regional territorial conflicts. The test will come when the United States is called to act upon its more clearly articulated position on Chinese expansionist behavior.

The United States asserts a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as a key component of its national security strategy and has long argued that China’s so-called nine-dash-line and its actions to exert greater influence over the South China Sea are anathema to global norms, regional stability and U.S. interests. The new Position on Maritime Claims is one piece amid this larger puzzle.

Over the past few years, the U.S. Navy has increased its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Washington has affirmed that the South China Sea region falls within the U.S. mutual defense treaty with the Philippines (similar to earlier statements regarding Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands). The United States has encouraged joint training and patrols throughout the region. And the 60th annual National Defense Authorization Act sets aside up to nearly $7 billion in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 for a new Pacific Deterrence Initiative aimed to increase U.S. activities and cooperation in the region and counter Chinese expansion.

Parsing the U.S. Statement

Four years after the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that there was no legal basis to China’s so-called nine-dash-line territorial assertions and that no feature in the Spratly Islands meets the definition of an island (and thus none can serve as the basis of a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone), the U.S. State Department issued the U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea. In many ways, the new statement merely reiterates often-asserted U.S. views. But given the timing and the shifting regional and international context, the statement serves as a key component of a broader U.S. reassertion of its role in the Western Pacific.

While continuing to avoid taking sides in legitimate territorial disputes, the United States asserted that many of China’s claims are invalid under the tribunal’s ruling and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In this way, Washington recognized Philippine sovereignty over Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, and over Scarborough Reef (better known as Scarborough Shoal). China currently occupies Mischief Reef and patrols Scarborough Shoal, while the Philippines occupies Second Thomas Shoal.

Washington has long tried to avoid choosing sides in regional maritime territorial disputes. In part, this helped keep the United States from being drawn into a confrontation with China by an ally, whether the Philippines in the South China Sea over the Spratly Islands or Japan in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. But it also helped the United States avoid getting tangled in disputes between partners and allies, such as South Korea’s and Japan’s conflicting claims to Dokdo/Takeshima, or the many overlapping claims among Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea. The new statement marks an evolution of the U.S. position on territoriality in the region, and may set Washington up for more direct responses to any future Chinese action on disputed islets or waters.

The United States also asserted that because the nine-dash-line is invalid, it considers Chinese harassment of offshore oil and gas exploration and fishing by Southeast Asian nations both illegal. The statement specifically cited Vanguard Bank — a series of undersea features, several with Vietnamese outposts — around which Vietnam suspended oil and gas drilling operations due to aggressive Chinese actions and threats. It also highlighted Luconia Shoals, inside Malaysia’s EEZ, where Chinese coast guard vessels patrolled for hundreds of days last year. And it cited Natuna Besar, an island in Indonesia’s Natuna Sea where Chinese fishing vessels with coast guard escorts intruded into the waters in late 2019 and early 2020 in assertion of China’s “historical” fishing grounds.

The final focal point of the Position on Maritime Claims centers on James Shoal, an undersea feature inside Malaysia’s EEZ that Beijing frequently touts as the southernmost point of China. China’s claim to the shoal has been traced to faulty maps and misinterpretations of maritime features. But it nonetheless serves as a key location in China’s broader regional claims based on a mix of so-called historical fishing grounds, select interpretations of historical claims and occasionally on modern law. The statement points out, however, that undersea features like James Shoal do not form the basis for maritime claims under international law.

Rebuilding Trust 

The selection of these specific features in the U.S. statement is intentional. It highlights each counterclaimant (Brunei’s EEZ is also mentioned), and shows different ways China asserts its dominance in the South China Sea: namely, occupation and artificial island building, coast guard and militia patrols, interfering with other nations’ offshore resource development, and using its fishing fleets as a tool of state policy and territorial assertion. The attention to the Philippines reflects the need to reestablish trust in U.S. reliability as a partner, particularly as President Rodrigo Duterte’s shift to China was in part justified by the lack of U.S. assistance to stop China from occupying islets in the South China Sea while U.S. defense cooperation weakened Manila’s access to Chinese trade and investment.

For the United States, rebuilding trust with Asian partners and allies will be critical given how the region has long been torn between Chinese economic ties and U.S. security ties. A main challenge the United States must overcome is the perception that its regional policy is largely reactive. In short, the United States appears to be responding to China’s expansion, but doesn’t necessarily have any U.S.-specific set of goals aside from blocking China from altering the status quo. China is a large and economically important neighbor, a critical source of trade and investment. In a region where infrastructure development, investment and creating economic opportunities for growing populations is a daily challenge for local governments, simply being anti-China is not only insufficient, it is counterproductive.

Testing U.S. Commitment

Three areas will shape regional assessments of U.S. commitment and leadership moving forward. The first is economics. Is the United States willing to increase its loans, investments and trade with Southeast Asia to assist in infrastructure development projects, and at a competitive rate with China? Cooperative efforts, for example with Japan, Australia and India, may partially fulfill this need, but even with a renewed focus on the Western Pacific, there is unlikely to be an Asian Marshall Plan that facilitates a surge of regional development and growth. Meanwhile, the post-COVID economic situation will make investment and assistance even more critical in supporting regional governments.

The second is in cooperation and training. How willing is the United States to increase defense training, arms sales and technology transfers? In the case of Vietnam, for example, the United States has already begun supplying coastal patrol vessels and stepped-up port visits. Despite political differences, the Philippines remains a central focus of U.S. military joint training. And again, U.S. partners such as Japan and the United Kingdom may be taking a more active role in strengthening regional maritime capabilities. Paired with local capacity building, the United States will also continue on its trend of a notable presence in the region, including everything from Freedom of Navigation Operations to strategic aviation flights to bilateral to multilateral exercises.

The final and most difficult test, however, will come when China continues along its current path in the region and seeks to interfere with regional offshore oil operations, declares an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, chases off neighboring fishing vessels or begins occupying another reef such as Scarborough Shoal. Thus far, China has patrolled the shoal and interfered with Philippine fishing vessels gaining access to the waters around the shoal and the safe waters in its lagoon. Should Beijing begin to physically occupy the shoal or begin land reclamation operations as it has elsewhere, the United States would be forced either to demonstrate its strong commitment to blocking the action or once again allow China to occupy territory unhindered.

Though the United States clearly states such activities would be illegal, its defense agreement with the Philippines may only come into effect if the Philippine military comes under threat during a Chinese operation. The United States could resort to diplomatic and economic tools, from statements in the United Nations to sanctions against Chinese companies or officials engaged in further land reclamation inside the Philippine EEZ, but it is unclear whether that would be sufficient to reassure Manila or its neighbors of U.S. commitment.

Direct military intervention, even if just through a show of force, raises the stakes in the overall U.S.-China military relationship. Failing to do so risks U.S. reputation. So long as U.S. policy remains largely reactive to China, rather than proactive in defining and shaping the region toward a particular goal, its behavior will remain difficult for partners and allies to anticipate. Now that the State Department has issued the new position statement, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nation states will be watching closely to see just how far the words translate into action.

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