There are two reasons why the US challenged China’s
claims to the East Sea at this time, the professor at the University of New
South Wales, Canberra (UNSW Canberra) said in an interview with Hanoitimes.
First, senior officials in the Trump administration
concluded that China was taking advantage of the world being distracted by
the Covid-19 pandemic to advance its claims over the East Sea through
intimidation and bullying. The Pentagon then approved a step in the
frequency of freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPs) and overflights by
Second, as tensions between China and the United
States rose over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, US public
opinion began to turn against China in the US Congress by both political
parties and among the public at large. China’s intimidation and bullying in
the East Sea and intervention in the internal affairs of Hong Kong only
stoked anti-China sentiment.
The US's legal arguments
The US advanced four legal arguments.
First, the US rejected Chinas assertion of "historic
rights" because they were far in excess to its maritime entitlements under
the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Second, the US rejected China’s attempt to group
dispersed islands in the East Sea into one unit by drawing straight
baselines around them. The US argued that no provision in UNCLOS gives an
exception to normal baselines.
Third, the US argued that China therefore could not
claim internal waters or other maritime zones “by treating island groups in
the East Sea as a collective.”
Fourth, the US argued that China could not claim any
maritime entitlements based on features that were not islands under the
UNCLOS and the Arbitral Tribunal ruling of July 2016. Further, China could
not assert sovereignty over entirely submerged features such as Macclesfield
Bank, James Shoal, Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal.
In sum, the United States rejected China’s attempt
to restrict navigational rights and freedoms on the basis of international
How will China respond?
China will follow past practice by lodging a Note
Verbale with the UN Secretary-General totally rejecting US legal arguments.
China will continue to advance its claims on the grounds of "historic
rights" and sovereignty over the Nanhai Zhudao (South China Sea islands) and
their "four shas" – Dongsha (Pratas). Xisha (Paracels), Zhongsha
(Macclesfield Bank) and Nansha (Spratlys).
It should be noted that after the Arbitral Ruling in
July 2016, which ruled that China’s nine-dash line claim was illegal under
international law, China has shifted grounds and argued that the ‘four shas”
form a unit.
The United Nations will not take action. The
Secretary General will circulate the US Note Verbale to all members of the
General Assembly, including members of the Security Council, and post it on
the UN’s website. The US challenge to China will be one in a continuing
series of verbal exchanges as the two major powers continue their rivalry
for influence. ASEAN and regional states, like Vietnam, will come under
pressure to take sides. Since the balance of power in the post-Covid-19
world is uncertain it is likely that Southeast Asian states will remain
aloof and support ASEAN centrality and Southeast Asian autonomy from the