Will South China Sea’s rival claimants be emboldened by US policy shift?

Will South China Sea’s rival claimants be emboldened by US policy shift?

  • Washington’s tougher line on the contested waterway gives China’s neighbours some leverage in negotiations, observer says
  • But they are expected to carefully balance relations between the two superpowers to avoid getting caught in the middle

Washington’s policy shift on the South China Sea could embolden Southeast Asian claimant states to take on China with legal action, observers say, after the US rejected most of Beijing’s claims in the strategic waterway as “unlawful” this week.

While avoiding being seen to be taking sides, some of China’s neighbours said in a statement after the US remarks that Beijing should follow international law in relation to the South China Sea.

Tensions over the resource-rich region have been rising, with both Southeast Asian nations and the United States saying China was to blame because of its infrastructure and military build-up there. The US, which is not a claimant state, has meanwhile stepped up its military presence, sending warships and aircraft to the disputed waters to keep tabs on China’s activities.The situation escalated on Monday, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the US formally opposed Chinese claims to waters within the so-called nine-dash line that encompasses almost all of the South China Sea – in line with a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal at The Hague.David Stilwell, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, on Tuesday said the US could sanction Chinese officials and companies that pursued “illegal” claims in the South China Sea.