US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo’s address on Monday contained a fistful of messages with historic overtones, spelling out that the era of a full blown new Cold War with Beijing had arrived.
Nearly five decades after Beijing and Washington had anchored a de facto special relationship following President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to the Chinese capital in 1972, the Trump administration, through Pompeo’s address, has, apparently, read out the sunset clause.
In no uncertain terms, the Teflon-coated secretary of state made it plain to the mandarins in Beijing, that Washington will contest and use formidable force, if required, in case China unlawfully tried to seize the copious resources of the South China Sea (SCS), or control the global arteries of trade that flow through these waters.
A part of the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea encompasses an area from Malacca and Karimata straits, to the Taiwan straits, through which $3 trillion in trade passes each year. The SCS is home to lucrative reserves of fisheries—crucial for the food security of southeast Asia. Besides, the seabed of the SCS is known to possess massive oil and gas reserves.
After years of hesitation, Pompeo signaled that Washington was now ready for a full blown active containment of China by standing by its Asean allies, who are in China’s crosshairs.
In his speech, the top US diplomat, rejected all SCS claims by China, covered by the so-called nine dash line—an imaginary line whose locus is so vast, that it rejects rival claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia Brunei and Taiwan. “Today we are strengthening US policy in a vital, contentious part of that region—the South China Sea. We are making clear… Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” he observed.
Pompeo’s message was especially timely as many in Asean had become victims of Beijing’s recent muscle flexing in the SCS. On April 3, China had sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat. It has also interfered with the work of a Malaysian exploration vessel, and dispatched Chinese boats in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Washington’s morale boosting assertions was reinforced by the show of flag. Two nuclear powered US aircraft carriers—USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan are operating in the SCS. These super carriers, with 120 fighter jets on board are exercising near Paracel Islands off the Vietnam coast and north of Chinese nuclear submarine base at Hainan Islands, openly challenging the unproven heft of PLA Navy.
Washington’s force projection in the SCS on China’s doorstep in support of its allies and partners, complements an extensive network of deployments in the West Pacific, potentially encircling China, especially along the “three island chains”.
After the emergence of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the onset of the Cold War, John Foster Dulles, a former secretary of state, developed the 'island chain strategy' of besieging China and the former Soviet Union from the sea.
Dulles’ doctrine, aired during the heat of the Korean War in the fifties, had three layers. Of the three island chains, the 'first island chain' was the most important. The lengthy network started from Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s far east and weaved its way into Japan. Then, from the southernmost part of the Japanese mainland, it passed through Okinawa, a part of a larger Ryukyu island chain which ended with Taiwan. From Taiwan, the 'first island chain' headed towards the Philippines and the island of Borneo, before looping towards the tip of the Malay Peninsula.
Pompeo’s speech contained two other messages directed both at China and Washington’s regional allies. Reinforced by the presence of the two carriers, the Trump administration made it explicit that it had enormous political will to stand by its allies in the Indo-Pacific, including those in Asean, as well as South Korea and Japan. This was vital to counter the motivated refrain, that the Trump administration, keen to wind up US involvement in external conflicts, had no stomach for overseas military engagements.
Finally, Pompeo made it abundantly clear that international law anchored in a modern Law of the Sea takes precedence over "historical” claims—the grounds which peg most of China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Unsurprisingly, Pompeo made several references to the Arbitration Tribunal at Hague, which had rejected China’s SCS claims on July 12, 2016, by repeatedly citing the salience of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea.
His speech, where he cited China’s “predatory” world view which has no place in the 21st century, resonates with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's observation in his July 3 Ladakh speech that there was no space for expansionist regimes on the globe. On the Ladakh stand-off, Pompeo had earlier accused China of taking “incredibly aggressive action,” which should not be seen in isolation but, rather in a larger context of the Communist Party of China pursuing an increasingly “revisionist” stance with its neighbors across geographies..