Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin Tuesday says Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea have “no basis in international law”.
Speaking in Singapore in a speech hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he says, however, Washington does not seek confrontation with China.
He clearly meant military confrontation but what does he mean when he says, “uS will not flinch when its interests are threatened?”
There could be only three scenarios in what he meant.
First, that the US will continue its strategy of challenging China in the SCS with freedom of navigation. Second, perhaps the US will beef up its security presence in and around the Asean. Third, the US could pursue the legal aspect of China’s growing assertiveness in the hotly contested waters.
While China is not bothered with the ‘freedom’ of other countries to navigate through the waters, it is worried that the US wins hearts and minds in Asean.
So far, it is the dominant force in the Asean where many member countries are now on its side. The Asean will have to prove, sooner or later, that it is capable of tackling the China problem in the SCS. But if pro-China elements cause divisions like before, then Asean would have failed in the eyes of Washington.
The last resort would be to arm-twist some of the pro-Chinese member countries of the Asean and push Beijing to initiate or favour a legal settlement of the crisis.
While China rejected the Arbitrary Tribunal’s ruling dated July 2016, it will soon have to act on its intentions of occupying almost all of the SCS.
It two options. One is to enforce its military presence with guns and more power to blockade all other countries from navigating in the SCS. This means it will be then prepared for confrontation, military or otherwise.
The second is for China to take up any other challenges with legal implications.
In 2019, two former Philippine government officials, along with a group of Filipino fishermen, filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court.
They accuse China’s President Xi Jinping of “crimes against humanity” for irreversible environmental degradation caused by China’s construction projects on reefs and atolls in the South China Sea.
It all depends on what the US have in mind under President Joe Biden.
“Beijing’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law,” Austin says.
“That assertion treads on the sovereignty of the states in the region,” he says, adding that the US will support countries in defending their rights.
“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”
As a last resort, the US might simply pursue its policies in the indo-pacific region which is shaping as an attempt to isolate China in its corner. This means the US and the Quad nations might make it tougher for China to involve itself outside the SCS and outside its legal borders.
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