New US position on South China Sea raises risk of clash with China at sea

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Singapore/Manila: The Trump administration’s move to brand most of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea a violation of international law doesn’t mean much on its own: China has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the 2016 tribunal ruling that the U.S. finally just endorsed.

But analysts fear it could lead to a miscalculation at sea if it prompts the Communist Party to become more aggressive in asserting its claims, both to rebuff the U.S. and to deter other claimants in Southeast Asia to avoid taking action. China’s campaign to build artificial structures intensified after the Obama administration announced a “pivot” to Asia in 2011.

“This may not necessarily change the texture of what the U.S. military is already doing in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “The concern we have is the Chinese may decide to step up their challenge against these U.S. activities in the SCS, thus increasing the risk of incidents.”

While the U.S. and China are sparring on everything from trade to Covid-19 to Hong Kong, the South China Sea remains the most likely spot for the two powers to have their warships and fighter jets actually collide. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he wants to deploy more U.S. forces to confront China, and the U.S. Navy appears to be stepping up freedom of navigation operations challenging Beijing’s territorial claims. Earlier this month two U.S. aircraft carriers conducted exercises in the South China Sea.

“The Trump administration is trying to find all the nails they can to hammer into the coffin,” said Zhu Feng, executive dean of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University. “On the one hand it’s exploiting the China factor for the elections, but in general the U.S. has fundamentally changed its attitude towards China.”

​U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s statement on Monday denouncing what he called a “completely unlawful” campaign by China over fish and energy deposits across most of the sea, which is vital for global trade and has territorial disputes involving six governments, marked the fourth anniversary of a ruling by a United Nations tribunal in favor of the Philippines against Beijing. China has said the tribunal had no jurisdiction, as Beijing had earlier said it wouldn’t abide by dispute settlement mechanisms for under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea, known as Unclos.

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