After years of the US saying it took no position on individual claims, it has now explicitly sided with Southeast Asian nations over offshore resources. Washington also accused Beijing of "bullying" its neighbors.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday rejected China's disputed claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea, calling them "completely unlawful."
In a statement, Pompeo said China has offered no legal basis for its pursuit of resources in the sea, which holds valuable oil and gas deposits and also acts as an important waterway for the world's commerce.
"We are making clear: Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful," Pompeo declared, adding that Beijing for years intimidated its Southeast Asian neighbors through a "campaign of bullying them."
Washington grasped on to a ruling by an international tribunal in 2016 that determined there is no legal basis for Beijing's claims over most of the South China Sea.
"We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose 'might makes right' in the South China Sea or the wider region," Pompeo said.
China slams US 'sabotage'
In response to Pompeo's statement, the Chinese embassy in the US tweeted: "We advise the US side to earnestly honor its commitment of not taking sides on the issue of territorial sovereignty, respect regional countries' efforts for a peaceful and stable South China Sea, and stop its attempts to disrupt and sabotage regional peace and stability."
Japan, meanwhile, accused China on Tuesday of "continuing to attempt to alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea," in a statement approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government.
Japan described "relentless" intrusions in waters surrounding a group of islets claimed by both China and Japan in the East China Sea.
In the South China Sea, Japan accused Beijing of asserting territorial claims by establishing administrative districts around disputed islands.
US sides with Southeast Asia
After years of Washington saying that it took no sides in the dispute, Pompeo — a prominent China critic in President Donald Trump's administration — explicitly announced that the US would side with Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
"America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law," he said.
Beijing claims around 90% of the South China Sea through the so-called nine-dash line, a delineation based on maps from the 1940s, when the Republic of China claimed some islands from Japanese occupation. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claims to parts of it.
The island of Taiwan, which Beijing does not accept is an independent country, announced that they want to be part of any multilaternal negotiations going forward.
"Taiwan should be included in a multilateral dispute resolution mechanism," foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Oui said.
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Pompeo issued his statement for the fourth anniversary of a tribunal decision that sided with Philippines against the nine-dash line. In line with the court decision, China cannot make claims on the uninhabited Scarborough Reef or Spratly Islands archipelago, Pompeo said.
The US also rejects China's claims in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, Lucania Shoals off Malaysia, waters considered in Brunei's exclusive economic zone and Natuna Besar off Indonesia.
Pompeo's statement comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington, including over the recent Hong Kong national security law and human rights issues in China, such as Beijing's treatment of Muslim minorities.
mvb/dr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)