The U.S. State Department has issued its most comprehensive study yet on China’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea and concludes that they amount to an unlawful claim to most of the disputed waterway and “gravely undermine the rule of law.”
The 47-page ‘Limits in the Seas’ report, released on Wednesday, also states that China’s claim to “historic rights” over the South China Sea is unlawful – a finding that concurs with the decision of the 2016 international arbitration tribunal in a case brought by the Philippines.
China, which has ignored the tribunal, has been engaged in territorial disputes with five other claimants in the South China Sea. The Chinese claims are by far the largest, covering up to 90 percent of the sea.
“These claims, especially considering their expansive geographic and substantive scope, gravely undermine the rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally recognized provisions of international law reflected in the Convention (on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS),” the State Department report says.
In the report, the U.S. reiterates its call for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to conform its maritime claims to international law and to comply with the decision of the tribunal, as well as “to cease its unlawful and coercive activities in the South China Sea.”
Beijing insists that it holds “historical rights” to most of the South China Sea and has declared the arbitration tribunal’s ruling “null and void.” It also points out that the U.S. is not a signatory of UNCLOS, which China ratified in 1996.
“China sets great store by the Convention and earnestly observes the Convention in a rigid and responsible manner. The U.S. refuses to join the Convention, but styles itself as a judge,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
“Such political manipulation is irresponsible and undermines international rule of law,” he told a news conference in Beijing Thursday.
“Our sovereignty and relevant rights and interests in the South China Sea are established in the long course of history and are in line with the UN Charter, UNCLOS and other international law,” added Wang.
The U.S. report, which examines four categories of maritime claims made by China, is one of a series issued by the State Department’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on maritime claims by different countries.
“It’s really well-argued, based on the latest information from Chinese sources,” said Bill Hayton, a well-known South China Sea scholar.
“It doesn’t change the U.S. position in any way but it gives everyone who follows developments in the South China Sea a really good set of data points on which to base their discussions,” he added.