US hardens stance against China’s claims in South China Sea

The US hardened its stance against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and vowed to maintain pressure over human rights abuses in Xinjiang after Beijing sanctioned China hawks in Congress and the Trump administration.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said the Trump administration was aligning itself with a landmark 2016 tribunal ruling which rebuked China over its claims to waters inside the so-called “nine-dash line” that encompasses roughly 85 per cent of the South China Sea.

“We are strengthening US policy in a vital, contentious part of that region, the South China Sea,” Mr Pompeo said. “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.”

The US welcomed the ruling in 2016 but did not legally endorse the outcome, partly to make it harder for China to accuse it of interfering.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new stance would “enable the US to push back more forcefully against Chinese harassment of other claimants who seek to fish and exploit energy in what China illegally claims as its waters”.

The move comes as the Sino-US relationship continues to plumb new lows. President Donald Trump last week said that relations were “severely damaged”, while Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said relations were in their worst state since the nations established diplomatic ties four decades ago. Most US experts believe the situation will further deteriorate ahead of the presidential election in November.

While Mr Pompeo issued his remarks on the heels of the fourth anniversary of the 2016 ruling, the move came as tensions are rising in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has deployed two aircraft carriers to the region for the first time since 2014, when sensitivities were heightened.

Also on Monday, the Trump administration brushed off a move by China to sanction Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two hawkish Republican senators, and Sam Brownback, the state department official for religious freedom, along with Chris Smith, a member of the Congressional Executive Commission. All of the men have castigated China for its mass detention of more than 1m Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province.

“These threats will not deter us from taking concrete action to hold Chinese Communist party officials accountable for their ongoing campaign of human rights abuses . . . in Xinjiang,” the state department said.

“There is no moral equivalency between these People’s Republic of China sanctions and actions taken by countries holding accountable Chinese Communist party officials for their human rights abuses.”

While the US and China reached a narrow trade deal earlier this year, they have been at loggerheads on a range of other issues, including human rights, espionage, and more recently China’s decision to impose a draconian national security law in the former British colony.

Robert O’Brien, US national security adviser, is holding talks in Paris this week with some of his European counterparts. He is expected to raise the issue of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms company that the US believes helps China engage in cyber espionage — a claim that the company denies.

The South China Sea move resurrects an issue that was a frequent point of contention during the Obama administration, but has been less public in recent years as the relationship has hit many other bumps.

“This is a good reminder that the competition with China has multiple fronts,” said Eric Sayers, an Asia expert at the Center for a New America Security. “We have been talking US-China tech for two years now while the maritime issues fell to the back of the line.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi