US rejects China’s claims in South China Sea as 'completely unlawful'

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Pompeo: Beijing's claims to offshore resources completely unlawful

WASHINGTON : The US on Monday rejected China's disputed claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea, a move that Beijing criticised as inciting tension in the region and which highlighted an increasingly testy relationship.

China has offered no coherent legal basis for its ambition in the South China Sea and for years has been using intimidation against South-east Asian coastal states, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"We are making clear: Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them," said Mr Pompeo, a prominent China hawk within the Trump administration.

The US has long opposed China's expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there. Monday's comments reflect a harsher tone.

"The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire," Mr Pompeo said.

The Chinese embassy in Washington said the accusation is "completely unjustified".

"Under the pretext of preserving stability, (the US) is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region," it said.

Analysts said it would be key to see whether others adopt the US stance and what, if anything, Washington might do to reinforce its position and prevent Beijing from creating "facts on the water" to buttress its claims.

"The US is trying to drive a wedge between China and its South-east Asian neighbours," said Dr Zhu Feng, executive director of China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University.

The US statement supports a ruling four years ago under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that invalidated most of China's claims for maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque said claims in the region should be resolved according to the convention.

"Our position here is we will pursue our national interest and resolving the South China Sea will have to be in accordance with the law," he said.

Chinese coastguard and navy ships intruded into Malaysian waters in the disputed South China Sea 89 times between 2016 to last year, and often remained in the area even after being turned away by the Malaysian navy, the government said in a report yesterday.

"The reason for the ... appearances was to assert China's presence with regards to its claims on the South China Sea, particularly in the area of the South Luconia Shoals," the department said.

China claims 90 per cent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) of trade passes each year. - REUTERS