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South China Sea - USA

Beijing has developed artificial islands and militarized maritime features in the disputed South China Sea. If there were ever a war between China and the US, a senior US general is confident about the military’s ability “in the West Pacific taking down small islands.” When prompted by a question of whether the US could destroy Beijing's man-made islets, Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr said 31 May 2018 "I would just say that the United States military's had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands".

"Taking down small islands that are isolated" is a "core competency," said McKenzie, the Pentagon's Joint Staff Director. The general emphasized that he was not issuing a warning. One "shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact," he said, referring to the US military's maneuvers in the Western Pacific during the Second World War against Japanese-controlled islands such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Tarawa.

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, told his confirmation hearing 12 January 2017 that China's activity in the waters, which see $5 trillion in shipborne trade a year, was "extremely worrisome." Tillerson said "Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to ... We're going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed." Tillerson added that the Obama administration had neglected to tackle the problem, saying the "failure of a response has allowed them to just keep pushing the envelope on this."

This is pretty bold stuff, as it asserts the US will expell Chinese military forces from their artificial islands in the South China Sea, and will also use military force to prevent the construction of new artifical islands. He asserted that the Obama Administration had failed, by not using military force or the threat thereof to halt artifical island construction to begin with.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer at his first official briefing on Monday 23 January 2017 said that the United States would defend its interests in the South China Sea, where China is building islands in an attempt to push its control of the key shipping lanes. "I think the US is going to make sure we protect our interests there," Spicer said. "If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we'll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country."

This is a bit closer to prior statements, and many news accounts omitted the conditional "if" in his statements. But by definition islands are in international waters, which is why they are called islands. The statement "not part of China proper" indicates the US anticipated adjudicating conflicting territorial claims in the region.

The canonical American posture on the South China Sea had been words to the effect that "the US has no position on territorial claims" [the US as a matter of principle does not get into other states claims, eg, it has no position on the Falklands], "states cannot use dredges to transform rocks, which under international law cannot have claims of territorial waters or economic zone, into islands, which do have such claims". However, the US "does not recognize China's 'nine dash line' to the entire South China Sea, which has no basis under international law". And the US "will assert Freedom of Navigation rights throughtout the South China Sea."

Whether the statements of the incoming Trump Administration reflect new policy, or negotiating tactics, or simple ignorance which soon be corrected, remained to be seen.


The US rejects the U-shaped, nine-dash line that China uses to assert sovereignty over nearly the whole South China Sea. Washington had always said that it takes no position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei and opposes any use of force to resolve such issues.

The destroyer USS Decatur passed near the Paracel Islands in a "routine, lawful manner" 21 October 2016, challenging China's "excessive maritime claims" according to a US Defense Department spokesman. He said the warship did not come within the 12-nautical-mile (22.22 kilometers) international law territorial limit of the islands, which are controlled by China. China accused the US of being a "troublemaker" in the region. The destroyer's action drew a warning from Chinese warships shadowing the Decatur, ordering it to leave the area. China condemned the action, calling it a "provocation" and a "gravely illegal act." The US Navy had now conducted four "freedom of navigation" operations in the past year in various parts of the South China Sea.

President Obama leveled a severe warning 05 Sptember 2016 against what he views as China’s continued misbehavior in the South China Sea saying that there will be "consequences" if Beijing refuses to back down from its increasingly aggressive behavior that he says is worrying its neighbors. "Part of what I’ve tried to communicate to President Xi (Jinping) is that the United States arrives at its power, in part, by restraining itself," said Obama in a CNN interview. "You know, when we bind ourselves to a bunch of international norms and rules, it’s not because we have to, it’s because we recognize that, over the long-term, building a strong international order is in our interest. And, I think, over the long-term, it will be in China’s interests, as well."

"Where we see them violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea or in some of their behavior when it comes to economic policy, we’ve been very firm. And we’ve indicated to them that there will be consequences," said President Obama.

Obama said that the US will continue its presence in the East China and South China seas. "America's treaty allies must know, our commitment to your defense is a solemn obligation that will never waiver. And across the region, including in the East and South China seas, United States will continue to fly and sail and operate wherever international law allows and support the right of all countries to do the same," Obama said during his September 2016 visit to Laos.

On 10 February 2014 US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel in effect ended the ambiguity when he testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, experts say. Russel said that under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea "must be derived from land features" and that any use of the nine-dash line by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land areas "would be inconsistent with international law."

Jeffrey Bader, once U.S. President Barack Obama's chief advisor on China, referred to Russel's testimony and said that "for the first time, the United States government has come out publicly with an explicit statement that the so-called 'nine-dash line' ... is contrary to international law.... By explicitly rejecting the nine-dash line, Assistant Secretary Russel and the administration have drawn our own line in the right place," Bader, now a senior expert at Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in a report. Washington made clear that its objection is a "principled one, based on international law, not a mere rejection of a claim simply because it is China’s," he said.

Russel's statement was immediately dismissed by Beijing, which has grown increasingly aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the region, fueling tensions in waters important for fishing, shipping, and oil exploration."Some U.S. officials make groundless accusations against China," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. The nine-dash line, he said, was established way back in 1948, a year before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and had been “supported by successive Chinese governments.”

Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, China’s work on four reefs in waters where Beijing’s territorial claims overlap with those of its neighbors. The work included such structures as piers and helipads. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said 13 May 2015 that “International law does not recognize man-made islands as an extension of the mainland, and in this case, nor do we”.

“No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can’t manufacture sovereignty,” Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told the committee that a US presence is needed in the region to ensure everyone with a stake in the sea follows international law.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Chinese land reclamation work was damaging stability in the region and could even lead to conflict. "As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust and undermining investor confidence," he said. "Its behavior threatens to set a new precedent whereby larger countries are free to intimidate smaller ones, and that provokes tensions, instability and can even lead to conflict."

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in a speech 30 May 2015 in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue that China had reclaimed over 800 hectares, more than all other claimants combined and had done so in only the last 18 months. “There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features,” he said. “We all know there is no military solution to the South China Sea disputes.”

The defense secretary also made it clear the United States would not recognize any Chinese attempt to assert a 22-kilometer territorial sea limit around disputed islands, reefs and shoals. “There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all around the world,” Carter said. “After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” he added.

Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, claimed that the South China Sea could become the next “Great War Zone.” Chang said in early June 2015 at a panel discussion held by the U.S. Air Force Association that it will not be long before the U.S. takes initiatives to respond to China’s unyielding attitude and behavior in the South China Sea. He said the time frame is now. “The U.S. Navy is clearly going to test China’s claims of exclusion of the South China Sea,” Chang said. “We have to do that, because if there has been any consistent American foreign policy over the course of two centuries, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation.”

“Now China is infringing on that notion at this time,” Chang added. “I think we probably will act in a very short time frame.” Chang called it “a classic zero-sum game” for China to challenge the U.S. in the South China Sea. He said China sees the South China Sea as one of its core interests with no room for negotiation, while the U.S. has been the influential maritime power for the past two centuries.

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Page last modified: 03-06-2018 19:21:08 ZULU