U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea – United States Department of State


The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today
we are strengthening U.S. 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.

In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability,
uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international
law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to
use coercion or force to settle disputes. We share these deep and
abiding interests with our many allies and partners who have long
endorsed a rules-based international order.

These shared interests have come under unprecedented threat from the
People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing uses intimidation to undermine
the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South
China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral
dominion, and replace international law with “might makes right.”
Beijing’s approach has been clear for years. In 2010, then-PRC Foreign
Minister Yang Jiechi told his ASEAN counterparts that “China is a big
country and other countries are small countries and that is just a
fact.” The PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.

The PRC has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the
region. Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its “Nine-Dashed
Line” claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in
2009. In a unanimous decision on July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal
constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention – to which the PRC
is a state party – rejected the PRC’s maritime claims as having no basis
in international law. The Tribunal sided squarely with the Philippines,
which brought the arbitration case, on almost all claims.

As the United States has previously stated, and as specifically
provided in the Convention, the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final
and legally binding on both parties. Today we are aligning the U.S.
position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the SCS with the Tribunal’s
decision. Specifically:

  • The PRC cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim – including any
    Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims derived from Scarborough Reef and
    the Spratly Islands – vis-a-vis the Philippines in areas that the
    Tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental
    shelf. Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy
    development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC
    actions to exploit those resources. In line with the Tribunal’s legally
    binding decision, the PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to
    Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal, both of which fall fully under
    the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction, nor does Beijing
    have any territorial or maritime claims generated from these features.
  • As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim
    in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to
    waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it
    claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’
    sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States
    rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank
    (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ,
    and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’
    fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out
    such activities unilaterally – is unlawful.
  • The PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to (or derived
    from) James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles
    from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast. James
    Shoal is often cited in PRC propaganda as the “southernmost territory of
    China.” International law is clear: An underwater feature like James
    Shoal cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating
    maritime zones. James Shoal (roughly 20 meters below the surface) is not
    and never was PRC territory, nor can Beijing assert any lawful maritime
    rights from it.

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. 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.

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