Yesterday the US Secretary of State said that Beijing's territorial claims are completely “illegal". Until now, the United States had limited itself to demanding freedom of navigation in the strategic region. For Manila, Beijing must respect international law. Jakarta views support from other countries for its positions is normal.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – The Philippines and Indonesia are the only two ASEAN[*] countries to express open support for the strong stance taken by the United States against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In a tough speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday said that Chinese claims over this vast body of water are completely “illegal".
Although critical of Beijing's actions in the region in the past, Washington had never taken such a clear stance, limiting itself hitherto to demanding freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
Washington's position is based on a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016, which described as “baseless” China’s claims to almost 90 per cent of the South China Sea.
Secretary Pompeo said that the United States would take action to protect the sovereign right of Southeast Asian nations to exploit their maritime resources.
For several observers, the US statement reinforces the position of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia against China’s claims in the strategic waterway.
The Asian giant has occupied and militarised a number of coral atolls and sandy banks in the South China Sea. Chinese warships and coast guard vessels, along with fishing militia vessels, frequently operate in the waters claimed by other states.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed Pompeo's words, noting that they reflect the expectations of the community of nations, which calls for compliance with international laws in disputes over the South China Sea. Secretary Lorenzana urged Beijing to respect the Hague Court ruling.
More cautiously, Indonesia agrees. The Indonesia Foreign Ministry said today that any country's support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea is “normal”. At the same time, Indonesian leaders stress that their country is not a party to the disputes in the South China Sea.
China however claims historical rights to the rich fishing grounds around the Natuna Islands, an area which, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, falls within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
ASEAN countries tend not to take sides in the geopolitical confrontation between Washington and Beijing. They need China for their economic growth - severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic - and the United States to contain Beijing’s hegemonic claims.
Recently, the two superpowers flexed their muscles in the South China Sea. In early July, China carried out a large-scale amphibious exercise in the waters around the Paracel islands. In response, Washington sent two aircraft carriers with their respective strike group to the region.
[*] Association of Southeast Asian Nations.