During her visit to Singapore on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris railed against China for coercing and intimidating countries in the South China Sea.
“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris said.
In her remarks, Harris referred to a July 12, 2016, arbitral tribunal ruling, in which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled China’s various territorial claims throughout the South China Sea are illegitimate.
“These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision,” Harris said. “And Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”
Despite the Hague’s decision, China has continued to maintain a presence throughout the South China Sea. China maintains a presence on the Spratly Islands, using sections of the disputed archipelago for military bases and runways for years. In recent months, Chinese military aircraft have reportedly established regular air operations from China’s various Spratly reef bases.
Harris said that, unlike China’s efforts to assert territorial claims throughout the South China Sea, the U.S. is instead focused on preserving freedom of navigation for all countries in the region. The U.S. Navy has regularly sailed so-called “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs throughout the South China Sea as part of an effort to assert international navigational rights through contested waterways.
“Our vision includes freedom of navigation, which is vital to us all,” she said. “The livelihood of millions of people depend on the billions of dollars in trade that flow through these sea lanes each day.”
Harris’ calls for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea came ahead of the Vietnam leg of her Asia tour. Vietnam is among the countries that have asserted territorial claims throughout the South China Sea.
Harris also said the U.S. is not seeking confrontation with China, nor is it trying to force other countries to choose a side between the U.S. and China.
“I must be clear: Our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries,” Harris said. “Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region. And our economic vision is a critical part of that.”
Harris added, “The economy of the United States is growing faster than it has in nearly 40 years. Wages are up. Employment is up. Consumer demand is up. And we believe that our growth should not stop at the water’s edge; that it can also, and it will also, benefit our partners.”