On Monday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a lengthy and provocative statement which among other things charged China with seeking to build a “maritime empire” based on its expansive claims to international waters in the South China Sea.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said. As we detailed yesterday, in a reversal of the Obama-era policy of appeasement, the Trump administration now says China’s continued claims of supremacy over the area poses “the single greatest threat to freedom of the seas in modern history.”
Beijing has bit back Tuesday, blasting the United States as the only true “troublemaker and disruptor of peace and stability in the region,” according to new comments from China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
Zhao further asserted that at no time has China’s military sought “an empire” in the South and East China seas region.
He instead argued that China’s maritime claimes “have sufficient historical and legal basis” based on international norms and law. “The international community sees this very clearly,” he added.
A separate statement posted on the Chinese Embassy in the US’ website stated as follows:
“The United States is not a country directly involved in the disputes. However, it has kept interfering in the issue,” read the statement. “Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”
China’s claims have been bolstered by a series of man-made islands which other regional countries say cuts into their territorial waters, as well as waters which should remain neutral. Controversially, China has over the past years established military bases on these disputed islands.
But ever since Trump came into office, the Pentagon has stepped up Naval operations in the contested territory, and sent dozens, if not hundreds, of destroyer-class ships and others to engage in “Freedom of Navigation” operations – or “Freeops”, for short.
Most recently, the US sent two aircraft carriers to the area to hold military exercises, while Chinese ships held exercises of their own nearby.
Meanwhile, with neither side backing down, and daily heightened rhetoric, the potential for an explosive incident on the seas remains ever present.