Foreign Policy

Rebuking Beijing Over the South China Sea

State Dept. officially condemns the ChiComs' illegal attempts to expand control.

Thomas Gallatin · Jul. 14, 2020

Over the last decade, China has been waging an aggressive campaign to assert control over the South China Sea, spurning long-established international maritime law in the process. In 2016, an international arbitral tribunal declared Beijing’s claim to the region as baseless, though at the time the U.S. did not officially weigh in on the controversy. Instead, the U.S. has made its stance clear by regularly sailing Navy patrols through the region’s international waters, much to the annoyance of Beijing.

On Monday, that changed when the U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning China’s attempt to take over the South China Sea and officially aligning the U.S. position with the 2016 arbitral tribunal. The statement pointedly notes, “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.”

This is yet another classic instance of President Donald Trump’s willingness to buck the establishment and stand up to bullies. As The Wall Street Journal editorial board notes, “This is one of those Trump-era diplomatic moves — like moving the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem or pulling out of failing arms accords — that a more risk-averse Administration would not have tried. China won’t be happy. Yet the decision brings official U.S. policy in line with international law and geopolitical facts. No matter who wins the White House this year, a key priority of U.S. foreign policy in 2021 will be deterring Chinese lawlessness and expansion. This is a necessary first step.”

But challenging Beijing over its illegal attempt to take over the South China Sea is just the latest in a series of moves made by the Trump administration to step up efforts to confront America’s number one geopolitical rival. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directed another salvo at the ChiComs when he warned that the U.S. was “certainly looking at” banning the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform TikTok due to its threat of “Chinese surveillance.” Pompeo warned that the ChiComs were threatening international free speech online.

And just today the United Kingdom announced it’s banning the Chinese state-run telecommunications company Huawei from its 5G high-speed network. That’s a big win for Trump, who had been pressuring the British government for months to prevent the Chinese company from gaining access to the UK’s network over the threat to national security such a deal would present.

Finally, over the weekend, Trump stated that phase two of a trade deal with China, which would have removed billions in tariffs on Chinese goods, is “severely damaged” and not a priority due to Beijing’s having unleashed COVID-19 onto the world. “They could have stopped the plague,” Trump pointedly asserted. “They didn’t stop it.” Clearly, Trump is more than willing to confront and ratchet up the pressure on Beijing, and it’s about time an American president did so.

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