This week saw the rise of tension between the US and China over the South China Sea.  State Department Secretary Michael Pompeo for the first time openly rejected China’s claim in the South China Sea as completely unlawful.

That statement immediately elicited sharp rebuke from China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, who said, “The US refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), cannot stop itself from withdrawing from one international treaty and organization after another, and only chooses to comply with international law when the occasion serves its own interest.  It has fully revealed its true nature as a hypocrites and bully.”

A number of political observers has interpreted the heightened tension to Trump’s lackadaisical mishandling of the pandemic which made the US leading in the number of infected persons and casualties that caused his campaign to tailspin.

Although Trump has already been drumbeating his trade war with China as his political strategy, his alibi to make China his whipping boy accelerated when poll surveys indicated that his rival could be the man to beat this coming November.

President Trump has to make his posturing firm but the question asked by many is for how long can he intimidate China for his own political gains to endanger the world by crossing the threshold of brinkmanship. 

If that happens, humanity has no way of knowing why all of a sudden hell broke loose when it was only meant as a campaign strategy to impress domestic voters of his re-election bid.

The danger with US politics is often presidential candidates connect their foreign policy with their domestic policy which often turns out to one of a disjointed approach.

Local voters can only be influenced if such policy could affect their interest. Trump’s anti-China rhetoric managed to gain supporters because they know the stakes on what will happen to their economy.

The Chinese willingly negotiated because they could not afford to antagonize the US voters, and are willing to keep the inertia that is mutually beneficial to both countries. China applied the win-win approach and unfortunately, the second stage now appears in limbo because of the heightened tension in the South China Sea (SCS). 

What drove the US to involve itself in the SCS is to exercise its influence in the region.  US hegemony is overtly exerted as leverage to secure a bigger share of the known oil and natural gas deposits in the area without risking war in the region.  

US presence must first be justified, whether the US has a claim in any of the islands in the disputed waters of SCS.  At the outset, the US has no territorial claim in the SCS, and this now crumbles to whatever ramifications it might argue to justify its presence in the SCS.  

Looking at it, the US has no claim on any of the islands in the SCS to directly involve itself in the dispute.  Rather, the US is fanning the flames of mistrust among the member countries of the ASEAN and states littoral to the SCS to openly induce them to engage in conflict with the US at the sideline to assure them of its commitment.

The statement of Pompeo is pointing to this strategy of the US.    

Adding to this is the fact that the US is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Whatever dispute exists between the parties in the SCS cannot be invoked by a non-party like the US.

The overlapping claims between China and the Philippine should have been resolved on the basis of the boundary demarcation made by the US and Spain in the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. The Philippines was occupied by the US as a conquered colony from the Spain.

Spratly Islands

While holding on to the archipelago as a territory for more than 50 years, it never manifested to any of the maritime powers that the tiny group of islands known as Spratly Islands belong to the Philippines, when the archipelago was purchased from Spain.

After the grant of independence in 1946, US has remained silent for the fact that the US and Spain were the first to demarcate the exact latitude and longitude of the territory which Spain sold to the US, meaning that anything outside the demarcated boundary does not belong to the US and to the Philippines as successor-in-interest.

The US cannot laterally intervene in behalf of any state to the dispute more so if it has no treaty obligation.  This explains why the US has placed itself in an awkward position when it tried to use the 2016 decision of Permanent Court of Arbitration as sort of jurisprudence to set aside China’s alleged “9-Dash Line” as its alleged boundary.    

Maybe the claim of China is disputable, but certainly, the US has no rights whatsoever to invoke the decision of the PAC to reject the “Nine-Dash Line,” it being a non-party to the UNCLOS, meaning that any agreement on boundaries in the SCS does not exist insofar as the US is concerned.

As international law points out, occupation and prescription are important elements to claim ownership.  The presence of its naval might in the area is not to protect its claim in the SCS.  Rather, the US is desperate in securing the support of countries even if they are outside of the region.

Worse, this new alliance being hatched by the US is to purposely contain China without the seeking permission of countries littoral to the SCS. This in fact is contrary to the very idea of freedom of navigation to justify its presence in the SCS.

The US has never sought the permission of ASEAN and countries in the SCS when it invited countries outside of the SCS like Australia, Japan and now India to join in holding military exercises in the area as if to taunt the Chinese navy, “we are here to stay.”

Participating countries not geographically located in the SCS were invited to give justification to the new geopolitical term called “Indo-Pacific” to accommodate India by exploiting that country’s heightened passion for rivalry with China.

Freedom of navigation

It is truly a big question whether US presence in the area is for the avowed purpose of asserting freedom of navigation.  Freedom of navigation cannot be used by the US to guard, hinder, bloc or redirect other vessels passing through the SCS or as a pretext to intervene.

Nobody can say it in a straight face that the US is conducting its right to freedom of navigation when it deployed the biggest armada in the SCS since 2014 consisting of two carrier strike force led by USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, and missile guided cruisers, submarines, and accompanied by warships from participating countries like Singapore, Australia, Japan, India and Britain. 

Other countries in the SCS considered the presence of large naval flotilla as a show of force to intimidate China to remind it that it can no longer assert its claim over some of the contentious islands in the SCS.  It is an indirect message this body of water is now an American lake as it now attempts to extend the US Monroe Doctrine to this part of the globe. 

US claim of wanting to exercise freedom navigation to allow free passage of vessels in bodies of water beyond territorial limit is given and accepted by international law.  

Rather, its presence in the area, except for the Philippines, which allowed the US to have military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, gave it a right to use the SCS under the pretext of right of way and not of freedom of navigation.

But as it is, US presence in the SCS is in pursuit of its hegemonistic ambition.  

The US knows that should the Philippines revoke EDCA, its claim of freedom of navigation would have no legs to stand on but can be classified as routine naval patrol.  Even Vietnam, the most troublesome claimant in the SCS, refuses to allow the US to have military base in their country because it knows the repercussion in allowing it there.

The US bases in the Philippines partly justifies its presence in the SCS which is odd because the US is not a power to reckon with the region.

To objectively analyze the statement made by Pompeo, could one not say it is the US that is practically harassing China in a region where its own navy rightly belongs, it being a power in the SCS?

But it seems, the US has managed to pre-empt others to convert its aggressive design to one of a defensive position by proclaiming unto itself as big brother in the area. (rpkapunan@gmail.com)