Diplomatic Tightrope: 70 Years of U.S. Policy on the South China Sea

By Drake Long

Nov. 18, 2020

The statement was dramatic, like a diplomatic line drawn in the sand. On July 13, 2020, the United States declared most of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to be “completely unlawful,” and its pressure on Southeast Asian nations a “campaign of bullying.”

Those strong words were a culmination of months of deteriorating U.S.-China ties on everything from trade and the future of Hong Kong, to the Earth-shaking spread of the COVID-19 virus. But more significantly, it marked an important shift in decades of U.S. policy on the South China Sea.

Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center on the video screen) participate in the online ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting, Sept. 10, 2020. Photo: AFP
Washington had always been careful to avoid entanglement in the region’s thorny territorial disputes, using ambiguity to keep other nations guessing about U.S. intentions. And even after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s headline-grabbing pronouncement, Washington remained agnostic about who owns what islet and rock and reef in the strategic waterway.

But it also made clear that the U.S. and China were now on a more confrontational footing over an issue that many fear could spark conflict.

So Radio Free Asia has delved into the history books and old diplomatic cables to help use the past to explain the present. We look at how the U.S. stance on the South China Sea has evolved over the past 70 years, from the defeat of Japan in World War II, through the Vietnam War and to the emergence of China as a powerhouse in Asia, now with military bases on man-made islands dotted across the disputed waters. We also look ahead to how U.S. policy may take shape under a Joe Biden administration.

This map from the National Archives shows territories given up by Japan after defeat in World War II. Article 2(f) of the Japanese Peace Treaty states: “Japan renounces all rights, title, and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands.”

1951: Origins of the U.S. Position

The U.S. first laid out its position on the South China Sea in 1951, at the San Francisco Peace Conference that formally ended World War II in the Pacific. Previously, the South China Sea had changed hands between European empires, the Republic of China, and Imperial Japan. However, under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan renounced all claims to the South China Sea, and by 1951 the Republic of China had retreated from mainland China after a civil war that left the Chinese Communist Party in control. The Republic of China, now established on Taiwan, was not in a position to enforce its claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands anymore.

Gaumont British News coverage on Sept. 13, 1951, of the San Francisco Peace Conference that brought a formal end to hostilities between Japan and Allied powers after World War II, and where Japan renounced all claims to the South China Sea. Video: Reuters.

At this point, the significance of the South China Sea wasn’t completely understood. This was long before any natural resources like oil or gas had been found in the area and before the threat of overfishing was apparent. A U.S. memorandum to their Australian allies discussing what a peace treaty with Japan would look like even called the Spratly Islands “an uninhabited spot,” not considered “important enough to warrant mention in the treaty.”

French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman (center) talks to reporters Sept. 3, 1951, in San Francisco at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference. France occupied parts of the South China Sea under “French Indochina,” but lost them to Imperial Japan during the war. Photo: AFP
Chris Chung, a historian of the South China Sea at the University of Toronto, said most claimants didn’t even have accurate maps of the waters and the islets in them at the time, other than the Republic of China.

The U.S. did not want to explicitly say who would inherit the South China Sea islets from Japan, since it didn’t recognize the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. The U.S. was also mindful of other countries and European colonial empires, like France, which still had claims in the area and were U.S. allies.

“The U.S. made a concerted effort to stay out of it,” Chung said.

The expansive claims made by the Republic of China and other claimants were to the land features dotting the South China Sea, not the vast waters between them, Chung said. But over time, the PRC slowly clarified its claim to include the land and water within its so-called nine-dash line, which covers about 90 percent of the South China Sea.

1974: No US Intervention as China, South Vietnam Clash in the Paracels

In 1974, China and what was then the U.S.-allied government of South Vietnam clashed over the Paracel Islands, surprising the United States and placing it in an awkward position.

A year earlier, in 1973, the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from South Vietnam as it wound down its involvement in the Vietnam War. That same year, South Vietnam had signaled it would start oil exploration around its occupied features in the Paracels with international companies. This stoked tensions with China, which proved willing to risk a confrontation, now that the U.S. Navy was no longer backing Saigon.

A South Vietnamese Navy ship is towed into the port of Danang after being damaged by the Chinese Navy at the Battle of the Paracel Islands, Jan. 21, 1974. Photo: AP

On Jan. 19, 1974, shortly after South Vietnam sent two warships to evict some Chinese fishermen off its claimed features in the Paracels, China responded by killing dozens of South Vietnamese troops and seizing the disputed islets. China has occupied the Paracel Islands ever since.

“From what I can learn from local U.S. Navy representatives, U.S. intelligence was surprised by sudden appearance of significant Chinese naval forces in Paracels and did not have useful forewarning of military action against [Government of South Vietnam] units before it occurred,” U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines William H. Sullivan told the State Department about a week after the so-called Battle of the Paracels.

Ultimately, the U.S. Navy was ordered not to intervene, and the U.S. publicly reiterated its stance of non-involvement in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Privately, China’s successful surprise seizure of the Paracels greatly concerned U.S. officials – but for a different reason. The U.S. was concerned about how the development could weigh upon its relations with another Asian nation: the Philippines.

1974 Onward: U.S. Hedges on Treaty Commitment to Philippines

What if China didn’t stop at the Paracels in asserting its sovereignty over land features in the South China Sea, and moved on to threatening Philippine-occupied features in the Spratly Islands, further south?

Ambassador Sullivan sought clarification from Washington on what he should say to his counterparts in Manila. An attack on Filipino marines in the Spratlys, after all, could invoke the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty and potentially embroil the U.S. in armed conflict.

The Mutual Defense Treaty guarantees that if either the U.S. or Philippines is attacked, the other would come to its aid. But the terms of the treaty weren’t so explicit at the time it was written, according to Lindsey Ford, a foreign policy fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. She noted that Article IV of the treaty commits both parties to respond to an attack on “island territories … in the Pacific,” but the U.S. had never publicly clarified whether the South China Sea and Philippine-claimed territory there would be considered as part of the Pacific.

A 1975 memo addressed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the situation in Asia that mentions U.S. treaty commitments and military bases in the Philippines.

In January 1974, two weeks after China occupied the Paracels, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussed the issue with top administration officials in Washington.

“The question has been raised about whether our Mutual Security Treaty with the Philippines would be invoked in the event that the Philippine forces know the Spratlys are attacked by [the] PRC if they move there,” Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Hummel, Jr. told the meeting. A legal advisor at the table clarified the treaty was sufficiently broad enough to cover “outer islands” of the Philippine archipelago, if the Philippines pushed the issue.

The U.S. wasn’t just concerned about potential aggression from China, but whether the treaty could embolden the Philippines into provoking China if it knew that would force the U.S. to come to its aid.

The Philippines was pursuing oil exploration near Reed Bank, a submerged feature in the Spratlys, and guarding it with its armed forces. The question was if these forces were attacked, as Vietnam and China had threatened to do, would the U.S. come to the rescue of the Philippines?

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a press conference in 1976. Photo: AFP

But there would soon be yet another factor for Washington to consider. In 1976 it was negotiating terms with Manila to renew an agreement allowing it to station U.S. forces on Philippine soil – then a key bastion of American military power in the Asia-Pacific.

“A clearly negative response to this issue may at the very least be expected to complicate gravely our current task of renegotiating the bases agreement,” National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said in a memorandum to President Gerald Ford, referring to the U.S. stance on the South China Sea and Philippine claims there.

The fear was that the Philippines would doubt the foundation of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and cancel the agreement for U.S. bases in its territory.

But on the other hand, “a forthcoming response might encourage [former Philippine dictator Ferdinand] Marcos to pursue his claims to the Spratlys more actively, and to use military force to protect such claims,” Snowcroft wrote.

1990s: China Ups the Ante, Testing Limits of U.S. Policy

No doubt by design, Washington’s advice on the Philippine treaty was to remain ambiguous. But by the end of the 1990s, the limits of this approach were starting to show.

In 1995, China set up an outpost on Mischief Reef, effectively controlling what was once a shallow reef only visible at high tide and sparking an uproar in the Philippines.

On March 20, 1999, the Philippine Air Force flew over and photographed Chinese-built structures in the Spratlys, including at Mischief Reef, which sits within Philippine waters. Today the reef is one of China’s largest military bases in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP
Mischief Reef, unlike other Philippine-claimed features in the Spratlys like Thitu Island, is on the Philippines’ continental shelf and clearly sits in its waters.

The Philippine Armed Forces flew over the site of Chinese construction on Mischief, tore down Chinese markers on other islets in the Spratlys, and arrested 62 Chinese fishermen nearby, ratcheting up tension in the region.

The U.S. response was to reiterate that it “takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various islands, reefs, atolls and cays in the South China Sea,” and thus it would not intervene.

Chinese construction continued throughout the 1990s, and pressure from Manila grew to the point that the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Thomas C. Hubbard, wrote a private letter to the Philippine foreign secretary in 1999 that finally affirmed the South China Sea was part of the “Pacific area” specified under the Mutual Defense Treaty’s Article IV.

Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado (seated) points to photographs of Chinese structures on a reef claimed by Manila in the disputed Spratly Islands, Nov. 10, 1999. Photo: Reuters
This never specified whether the U.S. considered Mischief Reef and other features in the South China Sea to be part of Philippine territory, but did clarify that an attack on the Philippines in the South China Sea would trigger Mutual Defense Treaty obligations.

What followed for years afterward was a delicate dance: reassuring the Philippines of the U.S. commitment under the treaty, without elevating the risks of the U.S. getting dragged into a conflict.

But as China grew more strident in pressing its South China Sea claims, the room for ambiguity was shrinking.

2012-2016: US Looks on as China Builds its Great Wall of Sand

By 2012, China had enjoyed more than 30 years of uninterrupted economic and military growth. Chinese fishermen were now working farther from China’s coasts, and what would later became the China Coast Guard (CCG) had expanded its activities around disputed features in the South China Sea.

This set the stage for a confrontation with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, a triangle of sand in Philippine waters known for its abundance of giant clams. In 2012, a Philippine navy ship set sail to evict Chinese fishermen spotted there – and was blocked by two Chinese Marine Surveillance ships, the predecessor to the CCG.

Wang Yi
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at a press conference in Moscow on Sept. 11, 2020. Photo: AFP
This was tantamount to a sudden seizure by China of Scarborough Reef. The Philippines protested, and the U.S. attempted to mediate and get both sides to withdraw, but China stayed.

This standoff spurred the Philippines to take China to court, filing in 2013 for what would be a landmark arbitral tribunal case to judge the basis for China’s claims to the South China Sea for the first time under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.

China refused to recognize the authority of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that heard the case, releasing a white paper in 2014 that said the court had “no jurisdiction” over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea even though the convention spells out that states can submit disputes to an independent tribunal.

Regardless of what China said publicly, the prospect of its expansive maritime claims being struck down by international law must have worried it. Many of China’s claims in the South China Sea were based on their occupied features being defined as islands, capable of generating 200 nautical mile economic zones just like any other island under the Law of the Sea. But it was clear that many features China possessed, such as Woody Island, its main base in the Paracels, were little more than rocks or reefs and would not meet the criteria for being self-sustaining islands.

Mischief Reef aerial
An aerial photograph taken from a military aircraft shows reclamation by China on Mischief Reef on May 11, 2015. Photo: AFP
Perhaps partly for this reason, China began an unprecedented island-building campaign in 2014, dredging sand up from the ocean floor and building entirely new artificial islands on top of certain features in the South China Sea. This caught the attention of the United States – although ultimately, Washington did little to stop it.

“China is creating a great wall of sand, with dredges and bulldozers, over the course of months,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in a speech in 2015, coining the phrase that would come to describe China’s expansive network of outposts and military bases throughout the South China Sea.

During 2014-2017, China reclaimed over 3,000 acres of land in the South China Sea, irreparably destroying the marine environment in several spots and sparking a backlash from other claimants. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged not to “militarize” its emerging artificial islands in 2015 while meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama – a promise soon broken. It was basing weapons, landing fighter jets, and docking naval vessels at Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Woody Island from 2016 onward.

A satellite image taken Feb. 28, 2020, of Subi Reef, one of China’s biggest military bases and artificial islands in the Spratlys. The reef is near Thitu, a Philippine-occupied feature in the South China Sea. Photo: Planet Labs Inc.
The U.S. responded with “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs, that presented a symbolic challenge to the legitimacy of China’s continued reclamation of land in disputed areas. It would sail U.S. Navy ships within 12 nautical miles of China’s claimed features to assert its stance that the South China Sea was international waters and that China had no right to assert sovereignty over the area. The first such FONOP was in October 2015. They continue to this day.

2016-Now: The Trump Administration Takes a Tougher Line

The Permanent Court of Arbitration, or PCA, in 2016 found that China’s claims in the South China Sea had virtually no merit, thus handing a big symbolic victory to the Philippines. The award actually went further than expected, by stating that virtually no land features in the South China Sea – not just those occupied by China -- counted as islands.

The U.S. thus had a dilemma. If it championed the PCA award too forcefully, it would be adopting a stance on the territorial claims of all South China Sea claimants. So it tread a fine line. While the U.S. acknowledged and welcomed the award, it took no position on the competing claims.

Also, the Philippines did not press its legal victory. Newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte sought closer ties with China, and thus downplayed their maritime disputes even though China still occupied Philippine-claimed features like Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, and Mischief Reef.

Aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 5 and Carrier Air Wing 17 fly in formation over the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier (R) strike force during operations in the South China Sea with the USS Ronald Reagan (L), July 6, 2020. Photo: US Navy
But under the Trump administration, the U.S. moved toward greater clarity in its defense commitments to the Philippines, according to Lindsey Ford at the Brookings Institution, even though Duterte’s administration was at best ambivalent about the U.S. alliance and had even threatened to scrap or renegotiate the Mutual Defense Treaty.

On a visit to the Philippines in February 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “the South China Sea is part of the Pacific. Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

With the U.S. taking a more confrontational stance toward an increasingly assertive China, it now appeared that roles between the two allies were reversed: Manila was concerned that it could be dragged into a conflict on the side of the U.S., not the other way around.

“It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want,” Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said, four days after Pompeo’s comments.

Ford said the U.S. was now signaling to China that “it cannot further encroach on Philippine claims without expecting significant costs.” That brought the U.S. position closer to the kind of commitment it has made to defend another key Asian ally, Japan. The U.S. has stated unambiguously that it would come to Japan’s defense should the Japanese-occupied Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, come under attack.

Four months after Pompeo’s visit, the Trump administration took a key step toward clarifying its stance on the broader South China Sea disputes after decades of ambiguity.

On July 13, 2020, Pompeo issued the boldly worded statement that most of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea were "completely unlawful." That largely aligned the U.S. position with the 2016 arbitral award in the case brought by the Philippines. Other countries in the region like Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia also cited the arbitral award in diplomatic notes to the United Nations as they pushed back on China's expansive claims.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters at the State Department on July 15, 2020, two days after announcing a tougher U.S. policy on the South China Sea. Video: Reuters.

Now, the U.S. was calling China’s claim to the waters of the South China Sea “illegal,” disputing China’s insistence its occupied features were entitled to maritime boundaries that overlap with neighboring countries, and rejecting China’s right to resources in the area. While it was still not taking a stance on who has sovereignty over most of the land features in the South China Sea, it was outright denying China’s claim to the water between them.

In late August, the Trump administration went one step further, imposing sanctions on state-controlled Chinese companies responsible for China’s “Great Wall of Sand” – the construction of artificial islands completed several years earlier. It marked a new punitive U.S. approach toward China over its conduct in the South China Sea.

Although the economic impact on the Chinese companies is unlikely to be severe, this marked another milestone in a toughening U.S. policy amid deteriorating U.S.-China ties.

2021 Onward

It remains to be seen how the administration of Joe Biden will make its mark on U.S. policy in the South China Sea once the dust settles after a rancorous U.S. election whose result has been disputed by the incumbent Donald Trump. Biden is expected to become president on Jan. 20.

The Obama administration that Biden served as vice president for eight years was criticized for its failure to prevent China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and its subsequent spree of artificial island building in the South China Sea.

But Jay Batongbacal, the director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, noted that despite the Obama administration’s perceived failure over Scarborough Shoal, it had made clear that Chinese construction on the Philippine-claimed feature would be considered a red line. He said this may have persuaded China against seeking to build an artificial island there.

He predicted that Biden may in fact not divert much from the path set by Trump. “South China Sea is a bipartisan [issue],” Batongbacal said, noting that both Democrats and Republicans recognize its importance and potential to become a regional flashpoint.

What Southeast Asia wants, Batongbacal concluded, is stable and careful management from Washington, and more U.S. willingness to coordinate and cooperate with countries in the region. “That’s what’s really needed right now,” he said.

Sailors stand near fighter jets on the deck of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning near Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province on April 23, 2019. AFP Photo

Podcast - 70 years of U.S. policy on the South China Sea

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