This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States has submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations rebuking China’s sweeping maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, which drew a rapid response from Beijing accusing Washington on Wednesday of trying to “stir up trouble.”
U.S. Representative to the UN Kelly Craft sent UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres the note Monday and requested it be posted to the UN body responsible for evaluating countries’ claims to the seabed off their coasts. The note cited the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a 2016 tribunal between the Philippines and China that ruled China’s claims in the South China Sea were invalid under international law.
The U.S. statement was the latest in a long series of diplomatic notes and protests from other countries against China’s vague, sweeping claims. It follows notes by Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It also comes at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea and growing solidarity between other claimants concerned about China’s aggressive behavior.
“In asserting such vast maritime claims in the South China Sea, China purports to restrict the rights and freedoms, including the navigational rights and freedoms, enjoyed by all States,” Craft’s note read. The note specifically mentioned the objections raised by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
“The United States again urges China to conform its maritime claims to international law as reflected in the Convention; to comply with the Tribunal’s July 12, 2016 decision; and to cease its provocative activities in the South China Sea,” it said.
The U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS but recognizes it as general international law.
The deluge of diplomatic notes against China’s claims began when Malaysia submitted its own claim for an extended continental shelf to the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in December. That prompted China to reiterate its stance on holding “historic rights” to nearly the entire South China Sea.
Last month, Indonesia joined in explicitly agreeing with and citing the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling. Both Indonesia and the U.S. echoed the tribunal’s ruling that China’s “historic rights” to the South China Sea have no basis in international law, and that the features China claims there cannot generate maritime zones as they are not valid islands.
On Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to the U.S. note. Despite the 2016 ruling that indicates otherwise, Zhao insisted China’s stance is “consistent with international law including the UN Charter and UNCLOS.” He said the U.S. has “sought to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, resorted to military provocation, and attempted to drive a wedge between regional countries.”
“None of this is conducive to peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Zhao told a news conference in Beijing.
The U.S. has kept up a rapid tempo of naval maneuvers in the South China Sea in recent weeks – particularly in response to China’s deployment of a survey ship and a flotilla of its coastguard into Malaysian waters for a month starting in mid-April. China had apparently been trying to pressure Malaysia out of exploring for resources on its own continental shelf.
In another provocative action, a Chinese warship in February locked its radar gun onto the Philippine Navy’s BRP Conrado Yap in Philippine waters, sparking a diplomatic spat between the two countries.
President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued closer ties with China since he took office in 2016 and has diverged from the Philippines’ long-standing treaty ally, the U.S. But Beijing’s provocative actions in the South China Sea appear to have prompted a rethink in the Philippines’ attitude toward Washington.
On Tuesday, the Philippines announced it was suspending for six months its plans to terminate a key defense agreement with the U.S, citing “political and other developments in the region.” The Visiting Forces Agreement had been set to expire in August.
“Because of security issues… in that part of the world (South China Sea), both our governments have seen it would be prudent for us to simply suspend any implementation of the termination,” Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez told ANC news channel Wednesday, Agence France-Presse reported.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. explained Duterte’s change of heart on Twitter, saying, “A man who does not change his mind cannot change anything. And he ran on the slogan: Change is coming. But in the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in a time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world.”