It has not taken long for both the United States and China to start projecting power in the South China Sea on the heels of the US declaration that nearly all of China’s claims in the SCS are unlawful. ‘The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. 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,’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement earlier this week. The statement outlined the position of the United States vis-à-vis China’s expansionist activities, and claims in the SCS region. Just a couple days after Pompeo’s statement, two US carrier strike groups have reentered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. The Pentagon claims the move is unrelated to current events, however, even if true it still sends a message to Beijing. China has responded by deploying 4-6 J-11B Flankers to its airfield on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands. A modest move by military standards, but one that sends a message back to Washington.
With US-China relations deteriorating at a rapid clip, Washington has been increasingly concerned that China is using the pandemic as a window of opportunity to expand and solidify its position in the SCS, as well as in other areas. The statement confirming the US position serves to demonstrate resolve and show support for Southeast Asian nations that have been affected by China’s aggressive expansion around the SCS.